Trouble in Timor – ISN

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As violence erupts over the president’s naming of Timor Leste’s future prime minister, the world’s youngest democracy remains unsteady.

Political wrangles aside, the vast majority of Timor Leste's rural poor are subsistence farmers. Like these labourers in Ermera district, they need basic amenities and infrastructure (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Violence erupted overnight on Monday across East Timor’s capital Dili in response to the announcement by President Jose Ramos-Horta that former president Xanana Gusmao will be the country’s new prime minister. East Timor’s new government will sworn in at ceremony to be held at 10am tomorrow morning local time.

Burning roadblocks, stone and arrow-throwing and vehicle destruction continued overnight and into Tuesday, as supporters of the ousted Revolutionary Front for Independent East Timor (FRETILIN) took to the streets to vent their anger against Ramos-Horta’s announcement.

Australian peacekeepers were attacked close to an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp, but it remains unclear whether the violence is a spontaneous reaction to the announcement by disaffected IDPs, or a coordinated, politically motivated protest. Protestors threatened to burn down government buildings in the eastern towns of Baucau and Lospalos

Gusmao, who spent much of the 1990s in an Indonesian jail for his role in leading military resistance to that country’s 1975-1999 occupation of East Timor, leads the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) party, which came second in the recent parliamentary elections with 24 percent of the vote. Gusmao was elected as Timor Leste’s first president in 2002, but stepped down in 2007, leading the newly formed CNRT in the parliamentary elections.

Since the 30 June election, political deadlock has prevented the formation of a government. FRETILIN has maintained its right to govern as the largest party, despite only taking 29 percent of votes, which gave it 21 out of 65 seats in the national parliament. It claims that because the alliance of parties backing Gusmao to be prime minister was not registered as a discrete entity before the elections, it does not have any right to form a coalition government after the elections.

Ramos-Horta shared the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize with former Catholic Bishop of Dili Carlos Belo, and was elected East Timor’s new president in May after a landslide run-off victory against Francisco “Luolo” Guterres, the FRETILIN candidate, winning 69 percent of the vote. Ramos-Horta and Gusmao formed a de facto tactical alliance throughout the electoral cycle, with Gusmao appearing at Ramos-Horta’s presidential campaign rallies.

The CNRT will form a government in coalition with the Democratic Party (PD) – whose leader, Fernando “La Sama” Araujo was elected as president of the new National Parliament when that body convened for the first time on 30 July.

Completing the coalition – popularly known as The Alliance – are the Association of Timorese Social Democrats-Social Democratic Party (ASDT-PSD), a pre-election coalition of two center-left parties. The Alliance totals 37 seats, and Ramos-Horta partly based his assessment that the grouping could form a government on the fact that it had enough voting clout to pass the crucial National Budget.

Poor post-independence record

FRETILIN dominated East Timor’s first post-independence government from 2002-2007. However, the party has experienced a marked decline from 2002 when it took 57 percent of the votes in the pre-independence UN-led Constituent Assembly elections.

Continued high unemployment and slow economic progress in the short time since independence has vastly reduced support for the party, whose leadership was compromised by its shady role in the 2006 violence. Former interior minister Rogerio Lobato was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison for his role in fomenting the 2006 security crisis, while in June 2006, FRETILIN Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri resigned amid allegations that he facilitated the distribution of weapons to civilians, which a UN-sponsored Commission of Inquiry later cleared him of.

FRETILIN’s political image problems run deeper, however. Over 95 percent of Timorese are Catholics and the Church is by far the most influential civil society organization. Individual clergy have alluded to support for different parties and individuals, and while the Church does not support any particular party, it has been vocal in condemning FRETILIN’s attempt to secularize the education system, for example, and has arguably lent implicit support to an upsurge in anti-FRETILIN feeling, based on public dissatisfaction with high unemployment and slow developmental progress since independence.

And despite FRETILIN’s early dominance of East Timor’s post-independence politics, it was never the inclusive flag-bearer for Timorese independence that outsiders often perceived it to be. The election cycle was dominated by a small cadre of personalities, most of whom trace their political roots to the resistance era.

Gusmao’s rivalry with FRETILIN dates to the mid-1980s, when as military leader of the resistance, he decoupled the FALINTIL military wing from the FRETILIN, aiming to set up an inclusive national resistance coalition and reach out to those alienated by FRETILIN’s continued adherence to doctrinaire Marxism.

To its credit, FRETILIN negotiated a good deal for East Timor on sharing oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea with Australia. But over US$1 billion in revenues have accrued in a New York bank account, pending a concrete policy or plan on how to spend the money – aside from the Norway-style trust fund to which much of the money will be dedicated.

East Timor’s recent statehood and lack of technical expertise has meant dependence on foreign technical experts and advice from UN agencies. However, with Asia’s lowest GDP per capita, unemployment between 50-70 percent and poor coffee and crop harvests this year, continued worries about lack of capacity to absorb and spend oil revenues do not hold up for disgruntled citizens, who have seen little tangible benefit from this money or the estimated US$3 billion in overseas aid spent in East Timor since Indonesia withdrew in 1999.

Xanana: A viable prime minister?

Gusmao’s role during last year’s crisis remains a touchy subject, with a number of incendiary speeches made accusing FRETILIN leaders of orchestrating the crisis, and lending implicit support to the sacked army elements’ accusations of anti-western discrimination.

Questions emerged over his campaign team. Vicente ‘Railos’ was a FALINTIL guerrilla who was sacked from the Timorese Army in 2003. In June 2006 he blew the whistle on the Lobato plot and also accused Mari Alkatiri of involvement in fomenting violence and engaging civilian death squads. The same Railos worked as a district campaign coordinator for Gusmao’s CNRT during the parliamentary elections.

While Gusmao remains widely popular outside of hardline FRETILIN circles, some have questioned whether he has the political tact and eye for detail needed to run an administration. Engaging controversial figures such as Railos in his campaign may have alienated some swing voters disgruntled by the political irresponsibility demonstrated by much of East Timor’s elite since early 2006.

However he remains the political leader most likely to unify East Timor’s divided parties and disgruntled citizens, though his window of opportunity may be short.

FRETILIN has stated that it will mount a solely legal challenge to the president’s announcement, and will ask supporters not to take to the streets.

Anticipating Ramos-Horta’s announcement, defeated presidential candidate Luolo told a press conference held in Dili on Saturday that “because the Alliance was formed after June 30 it is unconstitutional and FRETILIN will challenge the decision.”

However, rumors and counter-claims have emerged that some of Dili’s thousands of unemployed and internally displaced youths are being paid by FRETILIN to cause trouble and stymie political progress.

ISN Security Watch attempted to speak with some youths present at roadblocks yesterday and today, but those asked refused to answer, and dispersed upon hearing police sirens approach.

The April-May 2006 security crisis in East Timor saw over 100,000 people, mostly easterners, displaced from their homes into IDP camps in Dili and Baucau.

Many of the displaced are likely to be FRETILIN supporters, going by any regional analysis of 2007 election results, in which FRETILIN took over 50 percent of the votes in East Timor’s three easternmost districts.

IDP camps near an army base in Metinaro – 20 minutes outside Dili and close to the capital’s international airport – have been notorious trouble spots over the past year. The airport remains off-limits due to continued rioting.

East Timor is home to dozens of martial arts gangs, some of which date back to Indonesian rule and turf wars based on land issues and trading routes. These gangs engage in on-off mutual feuding and some of the larger units have political affiliations. It is not clear if these groups or individuals linked to them are leading or participating in the reaction to the president’s announcement.

As the world’s youngest democracy, Timor Leste faces multiple challenges in terms of socio-economic development, poor infrastructure and maintaining political stability. Ranked as the poorest country in Asia, the former Portuguese colony bears the scars of the 1974-1999 Indonesian occupation, which resulted in the deaths of between 150,000-250,000 people, out of a population of 700,000 when the occupation began.

The violent reaction to Ramos-Horta’s announcement is deeply disturbing, albeit unsurprising, given the political and security stand-off since April 2006, when 100,000 people were displaced and almost half the army – mainly from the western part of East Timor – was sacked after it protested against alleged bias in favor of easterners.

This east-west divide later transferred to Dili’s streets, permeating much of the ensuing violence, with army easterners firing on westerners from the police and accusing them of siding with the westerner army rebels, all leading to civilian reprisals.

Easterners comprise most of the 100,000 people who remain displaced since then, and FRETILIN draws most of its support from this region. The ongoing political acrimony does not assure anyone that the future of the world’s youngest democracy is a stable one.

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