East Timor faces new rebel threat – Asia Times/ISN/Asia Sentinel

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Jose Ramos-Horta (US Government photo, on World Politics Review)

Jose Ramos-Horta (US Government photo, on World Politics Review)




An apparent coup attempt has left East Timor president Jose Ramos-Horta in critical condition and underlines the shakiness of the country’s transition from occupation through UN fief to fragile state.

He has undergone emergency surgery in an Australian hospital after being shot during an assassination attempt at his residence on Monday in the Timorese capital, Dili.

The leader of the plot, former military police chief-turned-renegade-soldier Alfredo Reinado, was killed during the dawn shootout at Ramos-Horta’s residence, a few hundred meters from Dili’s beach road, just after the president took his usual morning seaside stroll.

The attempt on the Nobel laureate happened as more of Reinado’s men launched a similar attack on Ramos-Horta’s ally, Prime Minster Xanana Gusmao. The prime minister escaped unharmed and later announced a state of emergency in response to what he described as a “failed coup attempt”.

Whether or not this means further destabilization remains to be seen. In Asia’s poorest country, promise has quickly given way to disillusionment and apathy with growing allegations of high level official corruption, according to watchdog non-governmental organizations Transparency International and Global Integrity. Now a new generation of rebels threatens the viability of the newly formed state.

On one level, it is surprising that Reinado tried to assassinate Ramos-Horta, who called off the mission to apprehend the rebel soldier and his followers, known locally as The Petitioners. The group took to the thickly jungle-covered hills after a 2006 security crisis left the army split and the police force shattered.

However, tensions had been ratcheting up recently between Reinado – a highly strung media-seeking showman – and East Timor’s current government. The renegade soldier blamed Gusmao – president before the 2007 elections resulted in him swapping roles with Ramos-Horta – for fueling the fires of the 2006 violence. Then, western region soldiers led by Reinado were dismissed from the army after citing discrimination in favor of easterners.

The inability or unwillingness to resolve the Petitioner issue and apprehend Reinado meant that East Timor’s difficult military reform and police rebuilding programs remained compromised. Gusmao issued Reinado a “one last chance to surrender” ultimatum, to which the rebel responded by threatening to “lead his soldiers down to Dili.” It sounded like characteristic bombast from the rebel at the time, but he lived up to his words.

While the United Nations – through successive missions since 1999 – has bet its chips on East Timor becoming a nation-building success story, this week’s dawn shootout highlights the challenges still facing a country ranked alongside Sudan, Iraq, Somalia and Zimbabwe in the Foreign Policy/Fund for Peace failing states list.

With offshore oil and gas coming on stream and revenues to be placed in a Norwegian-style escrow accounted trust fund, East Timor has a US$100 million a month resource potential that could lay the bedrock for a viable state. But as the record shows, “the resource curse” has left oil-rich countries elsewhere mired in corruption, ethnic conflict and widespread poverty.

Indeed, ample international assistance, through successive UN missions and on-off deployments of international troops, may now be part of the problem, as Reinado cited the overweening international presence as one motivation for his transformation from rebel-with-a-single-issue-cause into something approaching a new nationalist struggle.

The Australian military presence in East Timor has been jeopardized by clumsy and often arrogant behavior by troops on the one hand, and questions about competence on the other. East Timor’s Brigadier General Taur Matan Ruak had said he was “staggered” at the “lack of capacity” of international forces to prevent armed men entering Dili to try to kill the two leaders. Ramos-Horta’s brother branded UN police as “bloody cowards”, who hid rather than protect the president from the assailants.

Reinado’s swaggering and often farcical defiance of the rule of law won him significant support among East Timor’s youth-bulged population, governed since independence by figures that fought or organized resistance to 25 years of brutal Indonesian rule, and whose internecine squabbling throughout that time remains extant.

But dissatisfaction with the same omnipresent cohort – either the FRETILIN socialists that governed from independence in 2002 until last year’s elections, or the incumbent multiparty coalition under Gusmao as prime minister means that East Timor’s slow post-independence economic growth, rampant unemployment and with 10% of the population listed as internally displaced persons widens the potential audience for mavericks and dissenters.Tau

Reinado, flawed cult hero that he may have been, will likely become a martyr in death. Graffiti around Dili attests to his popularity in life, and when Australian peacekeepers tried and failed to arrest him in the southern town of Manufahi in March 2007, Dili went into lockdown as gangs set up roadblocks and torched government buildings.

While the renegade soldiers have lost their self-styled enigmatic leader, how like-minded soldiers or opportunists – citing the perceived poor performance of East Timor’s political elite and the various international actors who have propped and secured their administration – will view the coup attempt precedent remains to be seen.

Government officials in Dili are alarmed that the attack on Gusmao was led by Gastao Salsinha, the commander of soldiers who were sacked in 2006 and prompted violent upheaval. Salsinha and two carloads of his men escaped and are believed to have fled into the mountains.

He is believed to still command dozens, possibly hundreds, of heavily armed former soldiers. Other rumors are circulating that Reinado and Salsinha were not acting alone, after meeting with a number of members of parliament days before the assassination attempt. Sympathetic elements among East Timor’s tens-of-thousands of martial arts gang-members, many of which have clandestine political and security force links, may well take to the streets in protest of Reinado’s death.

However the former military police chief may just as easily have overshot the mark. If independence heroes have seen their once-untouchable reputations decline of late, much of that can be attributed to the hard realities of partisan politics and the mundane technicalities of state-building in a prohibitive context.

And while Reinado might remain a mystical figure in death, it will not quell the confusion among his legions of devotees from western provinces, who are struggling to understand why he attacked the men who he urged them to vote for in 2007 elections. Then Ramos-Horta was elected president with a resounding 70% of the vote, and most Reinado sympathizers likely voted for the president and later for the parties comprising Gusmao’s coalition in the ensuing parliamentary polls.

However, that this once loyal soldier felt compelled to attempt a coup in this relatively homogenous, tiny half-island nation not only shows the protagonist’s vainglory, but also points to a continuation of East Timor’s shaky post-independence state, leaving political and security knotholes for the multiple stakeholders to contend with.

Simon Roughneen is a senior ISN Security Watch correspondent and occasional Asia Times Online contributor formerly based in East Timor.

(Used with the permission of ISN Security Watch.)

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