EAST TIMOR: Ethnic violence or 'breakdown in social solidarity'?


Jon Lamb

Political tensions within the East Timorese elite continue to simmer amidst preparation for the first sitting of parliament since the arrival of the Australian-led international security force. The parliament is expected to discuss and debate the next measures to resolve the nation's political and social crisis. Following the visit of United Nations special representative Ian Martin, there is increasing support for an expanded UN-led presence.

East Timor's foreign minister and acting defence minister Jose Ramos Horta has stressed the need for a UN-led police mission to be deployed to maintain security, telling reporters on June 7 that such a force should "last at least up to two years".

A key problem remains how to deal with the sporadic violent acts by youth gangs. Much of this violence seems to have taken on a communal-like character, with angry mobs of youths with weapons threatening households or sections of suburbs. There has been widespread reportage in the Australian media of distinctive clashes between ethnic west (Loromono) and east (Lorosae) groupings.

However this ethnic distinction as the basis for the gang rivalry has been questioned by East Timorese community leaders and activists. Speaking at the "Beyond the Crisis in Timor-Leste" forum held at the Australian National University in Canberra on June 9, former student activist Antero Benedito da Silva stated that the youth gangs were symptomatic of the breakdown of social solidarity and the weakening of national identity following the formal attainment of East Timor's independence.

Similarly, the influential Bishop of Baucau, Basilio dos Nascimento, speaking in Portugal on June 8, told the Lusa news service that the theory of ethnic rivalry was "news" to him, and that there was a lack of evidence to back such claims.

The Fretilin-led government, the United Nations Office in East Timor and government opponents have alleged that the activity of some of the gangs is politically motivated. Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri claims there is evidence of political manipulation in order to force him to step down. In an interview with the Lusa news agency on June 7, Alkatiri said that "everything that is happening now began [with riots] in December 2002, more or less with the same demands and with the same groups behind it ... The objective is really to topple the elected government." However, Alkatiri did not spell out who these groups are.

In an investigative report for ABC TV's Four Corners program, journalist Liz Jackson interviewed members of an armed group who claim they were recruited and given weapons by former interior minister Rogerio Lobato as a private security force to intimidate political opponents of Alkatiri.

Jackson told ABC TV's World News program on June 8: "They say that they were asked to do two things. One, to settle down differences between those people from the east and west of Timor. But also far more seriously ... three of them claim that they knew their mission and were specifically told their mission was to eliminate political opponents, to eliminate the so-called petitioners' groups [soldiers protesting their sacking, which sparked the current crisis], and people who break the Fretilin rules."

While the gang members interviewed stressed that they had not killed anyone, Jackson stated: "They do claim that they were actually formulated to last a year until the next election ..."

The front page of the Australian carried an article on June 9 with similar allegations. Former Falintil independence fighter Vincente da Concecao claimed he was a member of a secret hit squad of retired guerrillas working for Lobato and Alkatiri. However according to Fretilin, these allegations are a fabrication intended to discredit Alkatiri.

There is continuing pressure for Alkatiri to resign, particular given these new gang-related revelations. The problem of who would replace him, though, and the consequences of such a move appear to have tempered an open push to get rid of him, particularly any move outside the bounds of the constitution. On June 7, a large convoy-style rally of around 1000 protesters from the western districts of East Timor delivered a statement to President Xanana Gusmao in Dili calling for Alkatiri's resignation.

Speaking in Dili on June 7, Australian defence minister Brendan Nelson claimed that the Australian government was not interested in interfering in political disputes within East Timor's political elite. "The important thing from the Australian government position is that any political differences in Timor Leste be resolved legally and constitutionally", he said.

Bishop Basilio dos Nascimento stated on June 7 said that while he would welcome a change of government, such a move would not resolve East Timor's social and economic problems and that the way forward "doesn't depend solely on the resignation of the prime minister and elections".

With the gradual easing of gang violence in some parts of Dili, the level of destruction reveals significant damage to government offices (such as the attorney-general's office, where sensitive files on the Indonesian military-orchestrated destruction from 1999 are kept) and possibly more than 500 private houses burnt or destroyed since late April. Gangs have also burned houses in Ermera district, south of Dili.

According to the Catholic aid organisation Caritas, the number of people killed in the violence could be much greater than the official death toll of 20. Caritas's director in Dili, Jack de Groot, told reporters on June 7 that there needed to be an international investigation to confirm the toll, especially because of rumours of killings and other incidents heightening fears throughout Dili.

"Fears about a lack of security in this town and in this country are based on a lack of confidence that justice will be served", de Groot explained. Alkatiri said on June 7 that he supported a UN investigation.

The political turmoil does not appear to have dampened interest from international oil and gas exploration companies in bidding for exploration rights in the Joint Petroleum Development Area in the Timor Sea, jointly administered by East Timor and Australia. Some 12 companies, including the large Australian-based Santos corporation, bid for four blocks on offer in late May, at the height of the crisis.

From Green Left Weekly, June 14, 2006.
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