EAST TIMOR: Anger at poverty and corruption sparks unrest

Issue 

BY JON LAND

Dili, the capital of East Timor, was hit by a wave of protests and riots on December 3-4. The unrest culminated in at least two deaths and scores of injured, when police fired tear gas and live ammunition to disperse angry crowds of students and youth.

The police crackdown signalled an alarming change in the East Timorese government's approach in dealing with discontent over its failure to address a range of social and economic problems.

According to Avelino da Silva, secretary general of the Socialist Party of Timor, the actions of the police and the government are a disturbing attack on human rights and democracy.

"It is a very tense and serious situation at the moment... the government is manipulating the situation as a means to silence all political opposition", da Silva told Green Left Weekly.

There is widespread anger at continuing high levels of unemployment, poverty and the lack of infrastructure to meet the basic needs of East Timor's people. Added to this, there have been increasing allegations of corruption and lack of transparency within the government.

In a highly critical speech at the November 28 Independence Day commemorations, President Xanana Gusmao castigated the government for being "dazzled with power". "The notion that the legitimacy to govern Timor Leste [free Timor] only belongs to some, not only reveals arrogance but also a lack of political maturity and a complete lack of understanding of the difficulties our country is facing."

Gusmao called on the government to dismiss the Minister for internal affairs, Rogerio Lobato, who is responsible for the police, for "incompetence and neglect".

Da Silva told GLW that the immediate trigger for the students and youth to take to the streets was an attempt by police to arrest a student at the November 28 High School on December 3.

"The police turned up to arrest a student that they claimed had been involved in a stabbing incident. The teacher would not allow the police to take the student, so they beat the teacher, provoking a confrontation with the students", da Silva said.

Students then engaged in running street battles with the police, resulting in two police scooters being burnt. There were several injuries inflicted on both police and students. GLW received unconfirmed reports that at least one student had been shot.

On December 4, 500 high school and university students gathered to meet with representatives from parliament to express their concern over the police actions. Two people were shot dead as police fired into a crowd of unarmed demonstrators. Many more were injured when police attacked the demonstration with batons and tear gas as it approached police headquarters.

Several eyewitnesses and media reports noted that the shots were fired from the police lines by men who were not wearing police uniforms. There are reports that as many as four people were shot dead.

Da Silva and Gusmao intervened to try and prevent further shootings and calm the crowd, which had begun to stone the parliament building and government vehicles. Others attacked symbols of wealth and Western influence, such as the ANZ bank and the "Hello Mister" supermarket. The homes of East Timorese Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri and some of his relatives were also torched.

The police shootings came on the heels of similar confrontations in East Timor's second largest city, Baucau. On November 25, police killed a man who had been taking part in a 3000-strong demonstration as it headed towards the city's police headquarters.

The role and composition of the East Timorese police force is a major source of contention. There is considerable anger among the East Timorese people over the significant number of police who have links with the former Indonesian regime, including police commissioner Paulo Martins. Many are angry that former Falintil (Armed Forces for the National Liberation of East Timor) fighters — many of whom are unemployed and without skills or qualifications — do not constitute a larger component of the police force.

On December 5, Alkatiri announced that two inquiries would be instituted to find out the cause of the riots. Both he and other government representatives have claimed that "political" forces had used the students and youth to create a confrontation.

Chief of the United Nations mission in East Timor, Kamalesh Sharma, has chimed in with claims of political manipulation of the protest, stating that the riots were a "planned attack against selective targets".

In an interview with Lusa news service, Bishop Ximenese Belo said that "behind these actions are groups interested in knocking down some government members" but noted that the confrontation "is the result of great dissatisfaction among the population, which took the opportunity to let everything out, all the rage over the lack of norms and regulations in employment, society, politics and the economy".

At least 80 people have been detained by police. They have been taken to police headquarters and a special detention centre on the outskirts of Dili.

Da Silva told GLW that he believes the government's inquiries into the riots are "just a cover for the police", whose actions were an "attack on democratic rights, supported by the media". He called for an international campaign by progressive and solidarity organisations "to defend human rights and democracy" in East Timor.

"We have heard of beatings by people [after they were] arrested... There are also rumours that members of opposition political parties will be detained", da Silva reported. "The situation now is much like it was under the Suharto regime... It is similar to 1996 when the dictatorship launched an attack on the pro-democracy movement in Indonesia and arrested the leaders of the People's Democratic Party."

The latest developments in East Timor highlight the country's chronic underdevelopment. Yet, this has not stopped the Australian government from attempting to steal much needed income from oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea. By ignoring international covenants, Canberra is trying to grab tens of billions of dollars in royalties through the Timor Sea Agreement, royalties that East Timor desperately needs.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard announced on December 5 that Australia would provide more aid to the East Timorese police force.

As if to add insult to injury, the Howard government is currently trying to deport 1600 East Timorese refugees who have established their lives in Australia.

[For coverage of the latest developments in East Timor, visit <http://www.asia-pacific-action.org>.]

From Green Left Weekly, December 11, 2002.

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