Monday, May 08, 2006

(East Timor Problems) What is really going on?

It is quite difficult to access all the facts of the situation as rumours abound and are not only passed on verbally but are also written up as “truth” by international media outlets (see The role of the international media). However, I will endeavor to tell you what I know from what I have read, seen and heard (shoddy journalism notwithstanding).

The violence started outside the Government Building at about 1:30pm on Friday 28 April and culminated in the loss of lives and the destruction of property including windows, cars, shops and houses. Much of this took place in the village I live next to which is called Tasi Tolu (I will include some photos of the destruction in this village when I get the chance to upload them). There have been no violent incidents since that day.

Five people are confirmed dead. However, the leader of the ‘594’ petitioners claims that this figure is much higher. In response, the government has established an independent commission to investigate these claims and the United Nations Office in Timor Leste (UNOTIL) Human Rights Unit is likewise conducting its own investigating. To date, they have found nothing to indicate that the death toll is more than five persons. It is believed that the leader of the petitioners has made this claim in order to discredit the F-FDTL (army) from which they all were expelled.

Approximately 20,000 people are believed to have either fled Dili or sought refuge in churches. However, given the population of the capital is around 180,000 I would have thought this number would be higher. Certainly my village of Rai Kotu and Tasi Tolu next door have lost the overwhelming majority of its residents.

About one hundred of the petitioners including their leader are hiding up in the hills around Dili and are too scared to come down in fear that they will be physically harmed. The government has guaranteed their safety but the petitioners do not trust the government.

The government has established a new commission (separate to the aforementioned one above) to investigate the claims of the petitioners which will report its findings to the public by 5 August. The commission is comprised of a number of people from government, state, church and civil society. However, the original commission established in February never finished its mandate, engendering little confidence that the second commission will do so. However, the leader of the petitioners has said that the ‘594’ will accept the new commission’s findings and recommendations.

There is no doubt that the leaders of Timor have really messed up. For starters, they were divided on the issue of whether the ‘594’ should have been fired in the first place and this lack of unity further exacerbated growing tensions.
Secondly, the original commission they established never completed its mandate. Why?
Thirdly, bringing in the army equipped with large weapons to quell the violence frightened a population all too used to a corrupt and brutal army during the Indonesian occupation. The Timorese have not yet had their own army for long enough to appreciate that it isn’t the same as the Indonesian variety, particularly when the whole issue began with claims of ethnic discrimination within the military itself.
Fourthly, the government did not have in place an effective mechanism with which to combat the myriad of unsubstantiated rumours which caused Dili residents to flee in their thousands. Although, in fairness, I am not sure how anyone could have managed to do this effectively.

It is said by the government that the violence on 28 April was politically motivated in order to bring down the government, or at the very least, the Prime Minister. Various political figures claim that it was initiated by new political parties or groups with their own destabilizing agendas; or elements within the ruling party Fretilin with an agenda to depose the Prime Minister at this month’s national party congress. Some government ministers claim that outside (i.e. overseas) interests are to blame but no one will name names.

The Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri is a deeply unpopular leader. Most Timorese do not like or respect him because he was not present in Timor during the military occupation by Indonesia. He lived in Mozambique where he worked as a university lecturer. Secondly, there are allegations of corruption and nepotism including that his brother obtains many of the road building contracts in Timor. (A friend currently works for Alkatiri’s brother building roads in Dili.)

Fretilin are due to start their annual national congress in the coming week. Many believe that Alkatiri will not be reappointed as the party’s Secretary General (SG) and therefore, will not serve a second term as PM after next year’s election. Given the depth of animosity for the man, and the obvious lack of cohesion he brings to the role, it would not surprise me in the slightest if he fails to be reappointed SG. Timor is a fledgling democracy and it needs leaders who unite not divide the nation, regardless of the person’s other attributes.

The elections are still a year away so I expect many more interesting times ahead. I do hope however that they are not as stressful as the past week has been particularly for the Timorese but I won’t hold my breath. After all, democracy in Timor is a mere four years in the making.

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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