EAST TIMOR: Deepening of elite crisis

Issue 

Jon Lamb

The political crisis in East Timor has deepened following the resignation of East Timorese Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri on June 26. As pro and anti-government protests and gang violence continue, a resolution of the present crisis has been hamstrung by the internal political manoeuvres of the political elite.

The sustained pressure for Alkatiri to resign — intensified by the allegations aired on the June 19 ABC TV Four Corners program that he ordered the creation of a secret gang to eliminate and intimidate political opponents — came to a head with the threat made by President Xanana Gusmao on June 21 that he would resign if Alkatiri did not step down as prime minister.

Gusmao's announcement precipitated further pressure upon Alkatiri and the Fretilin-led government, providing additional motivation to the anti-Alkatiri political opponents and critics. However, it also threatened to inflame an already volatile situation, a fact that Gusmao must have been fully aware of. Following Gusmao's announcement there was an almost constant series of protests ranging in size from a few hundred to 1000-2000 outside the national parliament.

The first response of Alkatiri and Fretilin was to see out Gusmao's bluff. The Fretilin central committee meeting held on the weekend of June 24-25 reaffirmed its support for Alkatiri as leader of the party and prime minister. Adding to the tense situation, foreign minister and acting minister for defence Jose Ramos Horta announced his resignation from these posts late on June 25. In an unanticipated move, Alkatiri announced at a press conference at his residence on June 26 that he was stepping down as prime minister.

Alkatiri told reporters: "I am ready to resign from my position of prime minister of the government of RDTL [East Timor] so as to avoid the resignation of his excellency the president of the republic", adding that: "having deeply reflected on the present situation prevailing in the country ... assuming my own share of responsibility for the crisis affecting our country".

In an interview on the ABC's 7.30 Report on June 27, Horta stated that "in the next two or three days, we should be able to reach a political resolution in terms of a transition government that will continue the work of the previous government until elections next year". Horta claimed that the election of Alkatiri as secretary-general of Fretilin at the party's congress in May was seen as illegitimate, as it "violated the principle of secret ballot that is enshrined by law" and that the broader Fretilin leadership was also illegitimate. However, "we have to balance that against the reality that the largest party in this country is Fretilin. So, the president is trying to navigate through this political complexity and find consensus to form a government in the next few days."

After an all day session of the Council of State, Gusmao announced in a communique late on June 27 that early elections might be called. "If, despite everything, a new government is not possible, the President of the Republic will consider the possibility of dissolving parliament and anticipating general elections", he stated. General elections were originally set to take place in May 2007. Gusmao also confirmed that he was extending for 30 days emergency measures declared on May 30.

The resignation of Alkatiri, while welcomed by opponents and opposition figures, did not reduce the political tension or gang violence. By the afternoon of June 27, a large gathering of Fretilin members and sympathisers had gathered near the town of Hera, around 16 kilometres to the east of Dili, preparing to enter Dili and rally in support of Alkatiri.

Alkatiri and other key Fretilin leaders and members of parliament addressed the crowd. In a speech televised by the national broadcaster, Alaktiri told the gathering that: "Some elements tried to bring down the government through burnings and destruction, but that's not the right way. They did these things so the people would no longer believe in a constitutional government."

Alkatiri's address to the rally of Fretilin supporters resulted in a dramatic increase in Dili on the evening of June 27 with house burnings and attacks upon known Fretilin or Alkatiri sympathisers. There were also reports of some refugee camps being intimidated by gangs and threats to workers at the national television station RTTL.

Anti-government protests and related gang violence continued the following day and threatened to deteriorate further. Gusmao made an impassioned plea again for the protestors to return home. According to a news report on June 28 by the Portuguese Lusa news service: " A protest leader, dissident army Maj. Alves Tara, however, said his anti-fretilin demonstrators would come back in 30 days if the fretilin-dominated parliament was not dissolved and early elections called."

The Suara Timor Lorasae reported on June 28 that six opposition parties in parliament expressed no confidence in Fretilin leader and president of the parliament Francisco (Lu'olo) Guterres, stating that he was incapable of tabling discussion on the current crisis. Joao Carrascalao, president of the still partially influential Timorese Democratic Union, has called for Gusmao to institute a "State of Crisis" and the dissolution of parliament.

On June 29, the first contingents of Fretilin buses and trucks carrying thousands of Fretilin supporters entered Dili throughout the day in preparation for Alkatiri's court appearance on June 30. A Fretilin press release estimated the crowd at 6000, "twice the size of anything seen on the streets of Dili in the last few weeks".

A letter delivered to Gusmao from the Militants and Supporters of Fretilin called for an end to the violence and recriminations and asserted that: "We as militants and supporters of Fretilin state that Fretilin should nominate the Prime Minister in the interim government, in accordance with our Constitution, the highest law of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste."

Prominent opposition leader Francisco de Araujo, who heads the Democratic Party (PD), was reported in the June 28 Australian as stating that there should be a broader investigation of government ministers and the events of April and May. "I think all the people close to Alkatiri and Lobato [indicted former interior minister] should be investigated ... Jose Teixeira [investment minister] and Ramos Horta, they are part of the cabinet. In particular, Horta tried to hide the number of victims. They should be investigated", de Araujo said. Araujo, a former student and clandestine activist in the independence struggle, fled to the hills during the height of the crisis in May because of claims of threats to his life. The PD is viewed as having strong links with Gusmao.

The events of recent weeks confirm that Fretilin is still capable of mobilising a significant support base, which also indicates that it would in all likelihood win a majority if an early election is called. What remains unclear at this stage is the extent of the support base for the opposition parties and how well organised the supporters of these parties are. Another unknown is what course and impact the factional differences within Fretilin may take. These factors will influence and test any new transitional government or government of "national unity" that may be formed prior to the elections.

From Green Left Weekly, July 5, 2006.
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