A mass breakout from Dili’s Becora jail has opened a new phase in the East Timor crisis.
On 30 August, Alfredo Reinaldo, a key figure in the rebellion which brought down the Alkatiri government, waltzed out the gate with 56 other prisoners. Until that happened, the tiny, impoverished country had seemed to be slowly stabilizing, after a combination of internal attacks and Australian pressure had brought down Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri’s beleaguered government.
Reinado, who has XXX tatooed on the back of his neck in emulation of macho movie figure Xander Cage, has called for a “people’s power” revolution. This is bound to have some resonance with a population facing continuing misery, many still in refugee camps.
Another rebel figure, Vincente de Concecao, or “Railos,” had fled to the western mountains some days earlier to avoid arrest.
At the same time Reinaldo was disappearing, Australia’s multi-cultural SBS TV1 ran a documentary knocking gaping holes in the story we’ve been fed about Alkatiri’s fall.
The crisis began with rebellion in the security forces, followed by gang violence. The root cause was poverty, but the main Australian media quickly blamed Prime Minister Alkatiri, whose real crime was standing up to Canberra in negotiations over oil and gas. Next they discovered the “charismatic” Reinaldo. He’d led a breakaway armed group that clashed with the army, but he claimed to be acting in self defence.
Then the TV program Four Corners accused Alkatiri of organizing a hit squad against his opponents. Railos declared that he’d headed this hit squad. The damning accusations forced Alkatiri’s resignation, after weeks of resistance.
Now Dateline journalists David O’Shea and John Martinkus have challenged this whole narrative. And these guys are credible. O’Shea was with Reinaldo in the mountains when he first fought the army, and later when he agreed to be arrested. Martinkus has covered East Timor for ten years.
O’Shea and Martinkus show that Reinaldo shot first at the army (O’Shea saw him) and that Railos, alleged hit squad organizer for Alkatiri, was actually fighting alongside the people he was supposed to “hit.” Railos curiously turned up at the swearing in of Alkatiri’s replacement, Ramos Horta, and has been seen at the home of President Gusmao, another Alkatiri foe.2 The established story line, concocted to legitimize the PM’s fall, doesn’t hold water.
In its place other patterns emerge. As part of the campaign against Alkatiri, Opposition politician Fernando Araujo claimed his family had been terrorized. Maybe they were — East Timor today is a violent and chaotic place. His Democratic Party helped co-ordinate anti-Alkatiri demonstrations — in itself that might just be democracy at work, though with a little assistance from Australian troops . . . but look who else helped him. One helper was Rui Lopes, who O’Shea and Martinkus say was “made wealthy through his close connection with Kopassus, the notorious Indonesian Special Forces.” Another was Nemecio de Carvalho, former leader of one of the worst militias terrorizing the East Timorese in 1999.
Yet another force pressing for Alkatiri’s removal was the Church hierarchy, and they didn’t just pray. “Reliable sources in the army high command told Dateline that two priests personally urged them to oust Alkatiri.” And there’s more:
In late 2005, armed forces chief Brigadier-General Taur Matan Ruak and Lt-Colonel Falur Rate Kaek were approached by two Timorese leaders accompanied by two foreigners on two separate occasions. The four also asked the army, or FFDTL, to remove Prime Minister Alkatiri.
Here the evidence is unclear. Were the foreigners American or Australian? Nobody’s sure. Alkatiri can’t prove there was a generalized conspiracy against him. He just says: “Evidence, no. But the only prime minister in the world that was really ‘advising me’ quote-unquote, to step down, was the Prime Minister of Australia.”
It appears that as investigations actually proceed into the events of the last few months, figures like Reinado and Railos are the ones coming under close scrutiny. Mario Carascalao, another right-wing politician, lamented that “Railos feels frustrated. He provided information to help solve the problem but they were going to arrest him.”3
Canberra pretty much got what it wanted when Jose Ramos Horta replaced Alkatiri. Horta is a champion of neo-liberalism and foreign investors: he recently declared that “Australia cannot always be philanthropic with everything it does for East Timor.” This was in regard to the oil and gas deposits located between the two countries, over which Australia has been absolutely ruthless in negotiations.
But beginning with the jail break, for which they seem to share some of the blame — apparently they were supposed to guard the outside of the jail — Australian forces have begun to come under greater political pressure.
In July former interior minister Rogerio Lobato accused them of breaking human rights laws then they arrested him a gun-running charges, saying they’d used force and didn’t have a warrant. On 28 August, East Timorese police academy chief Julio Hornai told The Age newspaper that Australian cops had forced him to remove his uniform in public. On 22 August rock throwers injured seven Australian police, and at the start of September, a crowd set upon Australian cops after a street clash. Even the very pro-Australian First Lady, Kirsty Sword Gusmao, says the Aussies are remote from the people and “have very little local knowledge.”4
Meanwhile the United Nations’ long-running attempt to cover up sexual abuse by its uniformed and civilian personnel in East Timor has collapsed. The truth is out.5
Given a mounting dissatisfaction with the foreign presence, given Fretilin still easily the strongest political organization in the country, and in view of Reinado and Railos’ departure for the mountains wielding guns and manifestos, with 100,000 people in refugee camps, there’s also some pressure on Horta to be more than a stooge for imperialism. This found expression in what a New York-based Murdoch correspondent called an “aggressive anti-Australian tone” and indeed “venomous criticism” in response to the jailbreak. Loosely connected to this are demands that Australian forces submit to United Nations control.6
Missing is any significant leftist political movement orienting to the grassroots. Without that, popular discontent may be channeled into support for Reinado, or the right wing, or dangerous outfits like the 30,000 strong martial arts gangs that grace East Timor.
It’s true that for some people things are better under Horta. “Business people say permits are now being issued in hours not days, containers are moving quickly off the wharves and corruption appears curbed.”7 The government is trying hard to meet the needs of capital.
Meanwhile, 100,000 displaced people are still living under canvas, and the rainy season is coming to create a living hell.
1 SBS Dateline transcript, “East Timor – Downfall of a Prime Minister,” 30 August 2006. This is the source for everything not otherwise footnoted. Available at <news.sbs.com.au/dateline/>.
2 It also seems the president’s office paid a hotel bill for Reinado the first time he was on the run. Mark Dodd, “Claim That President Paid Major’s Hotel Bill,” The Australian, 12 September 2006.
3 Lindsay Murdoch, “Timor Faces New Rebellion,” The Age, 2 September 2006.
4 John Stapleton, “Forces Must Know the People,” The Australian, 4 September 2006.
5 See Lindsay Murdoch, “UN Acts to Stamp Out Sex Abuse by Staff in East Timor,” The Age, 30 August 2006.
6 David Nason, “Venom Threatens Separate Mission,” The Australian, 4 September 2006. As the abuses charges suggest, the UN is not necessarily an improvement.
7 Murdoch, “Timor Faces New Rebellion.”
Tom O’Lincoln has has been active on the left since 1967, in the German SDS, at UC Berkeley, and for many years in Melbourne Australia. He’s the author or editor of five books on Australian history and politics (Into the Mainstream: The Decline of Australian Communism; Years of Rage: Social Conflicts in the Fraser Era; United We Stand: Class Struggle in Colonial Australia; Class and Class Conflict in Australia; and Rebel Women in Australian Working Class History), and maintains the Marxist Interventions website: www.anu.edu.au/polsci/marx/interventions/. Tom is a member of Socialist Alternative.