Thursday, March 30, 2006

East Timor tense as soldiers desert barracks

By Lindsay Murdoch Herald Correspondent in Dili, March 30, 2006

“GASTAO SALSINHA thought he would be a hero of East Timor's independence. "I fought the Indonesians in the bush but instead of being a hero I'm now being treated like a dog," he says. Mr Salsinha became a lieutenant in the Australian-backed army that was formed after East Timor became the world's newest nation in 2002. But yesterday he was in hiding, fearing arrest, in a house in an outer suburb of Dili after sporadic rioting and looting in the East Timorese capital since last weekend. "It's too late to solve the crisis … the Government had two months to solve it but did nothing," he told the Herald. Mr Salsinha and 590 other soldiers - more than one-third of East Timor's army - were recently dismissed for deserting their barracks. Their grievances and treatment have been linked to the unrest in Dili that has panicked some residents. But East Timor's Foreign Minister, Jose Ramos Horta, signalled late yesterday that the Government would consider setting up a special commission of inquiry to look into the grievances of the soldiers, which include claims they were discriminated against because most of them are from towns and villages in western parts of Timor. Mr Ramos Horta described the situation around the country yesterday as "largely very calm".

"I'm not saying there is not tension or a climate of fear among people in Dili," he said. "So far most of the 600 military men who were dismissed have behaved reasonably well - they have not been involved in any acts of violence or vandalism." Mr Ramos Horta blamed the violence on "opportunistic" criminals who were spreading rumours to fuel panic among civilians. He said only two of the dismissed soldiers had been arrested for alleged crimes that related to a domestic dispute in which a policeman had been stabbed.

"Rumours spread fast - more than official news," Mr Ramos Horta said. "And people who remain traumatised by past events, every time they hear rumours they panic. There has not been one single death - maybe altogether some 20 or so houses on Dili's outskirts have been attacked." Mr Ramos Horta said he would discuss setting up the commission of inquiry when he meets the Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri, and President Xanana Gusmao today. "We, the leadership, have to acknowledge that 600 former soldiers did not leave their barracks out of the blue," Mr Ramos Horta said. "There has been mismanagement of the situation for a long time. "As leaders we have to take collective responsibility and take collective leadership in addressing this issue." Mr Ramos Horta said he supported the dismissed soldiers being allowed to rejoin the army pending the outcome of any new investigation.

Surrounded by 13 of the dismissed soldiers, Mr Salsinha, 32, said that East Timor would not have gained its independence without the fight put up by the men who are now out of jobs. He said that people from the eastern parts of the country, including top military officers, had often accused the dismissed men of being more closely aligned to the pro-Indonesian militia that rampaged through the country, killing an estimated 1200 people, after the East Timorese voted for independence in 1999. "Why do they think like that?" he said. "Like them we are heroes of the struggle." Asked whether he thought the recent unrest would continue in Dili, Mr Salsinha said: "Of course it will - nobody has listened to us until now and I can't see that changing." Mr Salsinha said that some of the people from eastern parts of the country who had made accusations against his men had been given rifles. "What are they for? We are worried about this," he said.

Michael Gallagher, the Northern Territories government representative in Dili, said last night that businesses were still operating as normal in Dili and that so far there had not been any indication that foreigners had been targeted in any of the unrest. "The problem is with local staff being able to get to and from work - they are worried because they hear all the gossip and rumours," he said.

PAINFUL BIRTH
1999 Nearly 99 per cent turn-out in vote for East Timor's independence from Indonesia; militia violence and intimidation follow vote; more than 200,000 East Timorese flee to West Timor.

2000 United Nations evacuates staff following murder of three UN refugee agency workers by pro-Indonesian militia gangs.

May 2002 East Timor becomes fully independent; the former rebel leader Xanana Gusmao wins first presidential elections.”


Source: Sydney Morning Herald (from UNOTIL Public Information Office, Daily Media Review)

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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