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East Timor’s Crisis The Strangest Yet

East Timor’s latest crisis is the strangest yet.  The shoot-out that left president Jose Ramos Horta in intensive care, and killed the charismatic rebel Major Alfredo Reinado, is still unexplained.

At first they told us it was a coup attempt by Reinado’s forces, disaffected ex-soldiers who had come from their hiding places in the hills to besiege Horta’s house and later to shoot up Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao’s car.  Supposedly this was after a meeting between the President and the Major which had “ended acrimoniously.”

Then it emerged that Reinado had died first: “neighbours and Ramos Horta’s house staff told The Australian that Reinado did not fire the first shot.  Instead, they said he had appeared at the gate asking for the President and was almost immediately shot through the eye.”

Next Ramos Horta’s brother-in-law, Joao Carrascalao, claimed that both the President and the Major were set up, seemingly by sections of the army.  Carrascalao says someone shot the President in the back as he walked up a hill towards Reinado’s guys.  Meanwhile economic Minister Joao Goncalves reveals that the meeting between Horta and Reinado was a big success, and an amnesty deal was on the way for both the Major and his followers.  So why should the rebels attack?

Ramos Horta may or may not recover enough to resume governing.  Reinado is gone, but his cult following among sections of the population west of Dili is enhanced, at least for now.  The rebels are still at large, and the Australians have taken a huge hit to their prestige by allowing this all to happen under their noses.

30,000 people are still living in camps following the violence of 2006, as flooding and a locust plague make life a misery.  Agencies talk of “donor fatigue” as East Timor’s heroic image fades, and the UN is about to cut rations to camp dwellers.  The government has a plan to help internal refugees return home, but confused property laws get in the way.

You’d expect talk of action to meet people’s needs, but the new Australian Labor government’s response echoed its right-wing predecessor’s — boots on the ground. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had criticised the Howard regime for relying on military solutions, but he quickly sent fresh armed forces to Timor, bringing the total to just under a thousand, making up the bulk of the so-called International Stabilisation Force.  These include SAS commandos who botched an attempt to capture Reinado despite having Blackhawk helicopters and “every form of modern gadgetry.”

They faced savage criticism after the shoot-outs.  “There is no need to send more troops,” said Opposition leader Mari Alkatiri.  “There are already enough troops here if they do their jobs.”  East Timor’s military chief, Brigadier-General Taur Matan Ruak, was “staggered” Reinado’s forces could reach Horta’s house with the Australians unaware.

The situation is fraught.  There is a symbiotic relationship between the Horta-Gusmao government which scraped into office last year and the Australian (and New Zealand) presence.  The government is effectively propped up by foreign troops, while Australian plans to stabilize the country have relied on Gusmao’s personal prestige and the political skills of Ramos Horta.  Now the troops are a laughing stock.  Horta is seriously wounded, Gusmao’s version of events seems discredited and a sullen former governing party, Fretilin, bides its time in the fragmented parliament.  All Canberra’s plans could unravel.

Australian strategists are asking nervous questions about Rudd’s long-term game plan and the East Timor government’s economic strategy.

As the Australian newspaper’s hard-boiled commentator Greg Sheridan notes, the fall-out from these events could intersect with turmoil in other parts of the “Melanesian world” —  a point Rudd made during the election.  That is the ethnically related island states running eastward from Timor as far as Fiji.  Sheridan wants Australia to dig in for the duration and call the shots more aggressively.  “Australia is a separate and powerful force in East Timor’s politics and the quicker it recognises this, the better.  Canberra never should have allowed East Timor to develop both an army and a police force, for example.” And he says the current crisis “underlines the need for a bigger Australian army.”

But that army is less and less popular in East Timor.  The week before Ramos Horta was attacked, his son Loro wrote that the Aussies were “outstaying their welcome,” citing a series of outrages, for example the October 2006 incident when the ADF established checkpoints around the East Timor army’s headquarters.  “Taur Matan Ruak was prevented at gun point from leaving his own headquarters” until he was searched, leaving a sour taste from this “humiliation at the hands of a teenage Australian corporal.”

One reason the “Stabilisation Force” falls on its face is a lack of roots in local society.  Reinado escaped its clutches because he had a source close to the Australians.  Yet it seems no one will tell the Aussies anything.

At first glance it seems the government should be able to put an economic plan together.  After all there are oil and gas revenues, with over a billion dollars in a special fund in New York.  Horta and Gusmao went to last year’s elections promising to tap these funds but have done little about it.  This is partly because their strategy looks to a neo-liberal de-regulatory regime with minimal taxes on business and maximum reliance on the entrepreneurial spirit.  Even if that didn’t risk most resources ending up in the hands of rapacious capitalists, the reality is that entrepreneurs will run a mile before investing in the security nightmare that is East Timor today.

After the failed raid on Reinado, crowds barricaded streets in Dili, burned tires and chanted “Australians go home!”  Anger sparked again when troops attacked a refugee camp near the airport on 23 February using tanks, tear gas, and bullets and allegedly killing two people.  But it takes a more coherent social force to challenge imperialist troops.  The most likely candidate is Fretilin, but this party seems more anxious to regain parliamentary control than build a wider social movement.

There’s another cloud on the horizon for Kevin Rudd, however: other outside forces like to meddle.  Portugal is angling to recover some of its former clout.  China’s well known diplomatic strategy is building mega-structures to flatter the government, including the new Foreign Ministry building which according to one magazine is “the biggest building in the land — obscenely large — many times the size of Dili Hospital.”  They hope for influence in return.

Perhaps most startling is the re-emergence of Indonesia.  Yanto Soegiarto, a journalist close to the Indonesian military, offers a solution to East Timor’s troubles.  “Give the Indonesian military a chance to restore security and stability in Timor and the situation will improve. . . .  Indonesia and East Timor are now in a brotherly relationship.  The Timorese will see Indonesian troops more as their new brother compared to the Western-style, heavily-armed white soldiers who always try to look superior.” 

This isn’t quite as far-fetched as it seems, given cheering crowds greeted Indonesian President Yudhoyono when he visited in 2005.  The Jakarta government, still closely linked to the military, is not happy with the sight of a thousand Australian troops on its doorstep and will look hard for ways to regain leverage in East Timor.


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.



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