EAST TIMOR: Roots of the political crisis


Nick Everett

East Timor's current political crisis began when a group of soldiers from the country's west — which grew from 140 to 591 — signed a petition claiming discrimination inside the 1300-strong East Timorese Defence Force (FDTL). In March they were dismissed by the FDTL chief of staff and former commander of Falintil (the armed wing of the pre-1999 national liberation movement), Taur Matan Ruak.

On April 28, a demonstration by the petitioners turned violent. In the rioting that followed, at least 25 people were killed and 130,000 people fled their homes. Rebel army leader Major Alfredo Reinado took to the mountains with a separate group of soldiers, demanding Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri's resignation and claiming to be loyal to President Xanana Gusmao. Reinado, who was trained at the Australian Defence Force Academy, has "at least implicit support from Catholic Church leaders, and the Australian and US governments", according to Sydney University lecturer Tim Anderson.

While claiming to be "neutral" on the dispute between the economic nationalist Alkatiri and Xanana and other elite politicians, the Australian government has been quick to condemn Alkatiri's leadership, declaring East Timor a "failed state".

PM John Howard claims East Timor has been "badly governed". Foreign minister Alexander Downer — responsible for depriving East Timor of $1 million per day in oil and gas revenue — declared "the East Timorese themselves are responsible for what has happened ... no-one else is". And defence minister Brendan Nelson chimed in with: "If East Timor is allowed to be a failed state in our region, we know that it will be a target for trans-national crime, also for terrorism."

The Australian ruling class is increasing its interference in East Timor's political affairs, seeking to further undermine the 1999 victory of the East Timor solidarity movement, which reversed a 24-year policy of support for Jakarta's military occupation of East Timor and forced the Howard government to acquiesce to a UN intervention that assisted the nation's self-determination.

Forgotten history

After the arrival of 2200 troops from Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia in late May, a concerted campaign began in the Australian corporate media to demonise Alkatiri, while presenting his rivals — Gusmao and recently promoted defence minister Jose Ramos Horta — as "responsible leaders".

On June 1, the Australian's Greg Sheridan asserted that "Alkatiri has been the author of every calamitous decision the East Timorese Government has made". Sheridan called for Alkatiri's resignation on June 3, claiming, "If [the Australian government] cannot translate the leverage of 1300 troops, 50 policemen, hundreds of support personnel, buckets of aid and a critical international rescue mission into enough influence to get rid of a disastrous Marxist Prime Minister, then [it is] just not very skilled in the arts of influence, tutelage, sponsorship and, ultimately, promoting the national interest".

Sheridan's defence of Australia's "national interest" was not a call for peaceful relations with the people of East Timor, but a blatant bid to strengthen an Australian corporate monopoly over US$30 billion worth of oil and gas in the Timor Sea.

Chris Barrie, former chief of the Australian Defence Force, told the Age: "Maybe we were too quick to blame the whole [pre-independence] problem on the militia and Indonesia, rather than the East Timorese themselves and their own unresolved societal tensions." Likewise, the Sydney Morning Herald's Gerard Henderson blamed "clan-based violence in East Timor", claiming this was endemic both "before the Indonesian army arrived in 1975" and "since the pro-Indonesia militia was dispersed by Interfet in 1999".

Yet Australia's corporate media has avoided reference to the collective trauma experienced by East Timor's population during 24 years of military occupation.

The Reception, Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CAVR), established in 2002 to investigate and document human rights violations in East Timor between 1974 and 1999, estimated that the number of conflict-related deaths in that period was 102,800-183,000, out of a total population of well under a million. CAVR concluded that 90% of the killings were carried out either by the Indonesian military (58%) or their East Timorese auxiliaries (32%).

A study published in The Lancet in 2000, based on a survey of 1033 East Timorese households, found 975 had suffered trauma during the occupation, three quarters had experienced combat and more than half had come close to death. In addition, 39% had suffered torture, 22% had witnessed the murder of relatives or friends and one-third had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

As a result of the Serious Crimes Unit, which operated between 2002 and 2004, 339 suspects were charged — mostly former Indonesian generals. Despite this, and a sham Human Rights Court in Jakarta, all of the non-Timorese perpetrators remain at large, not only protected by Indonesia, but by the Australian, British and US governments, which have strongly opposed an international war crimes tribunal.

To date, Gusmao, Horta and Alkatiri have also opposed calls for an international war crimes tribunal. Last year, Horta negotiated with Indonesia to set up a Commission of Truth and Friendship that will recommend the granting of amnesties to war criminals.

The failure of East Timor's political elite to address this injustice remains a deep source of discontent, along with the extreme impoverishment of the majority of the population. Unemployment is over 50% and more than 40% of East Timorese people still subsist below the poverty line on less than $0.55 per day.

UN disaster

The primary responsibility for this social disaster rests with the neoliberal economic policies imposed on East Timor under the United Nations Transitional Authority for East Timor (UNTAET) between 1999 and 2002.

Following the withdrawal of the Indonesian military, the UN handed the World Bank the job of managing East Timor's reconstruction by administering funds donated by UN member states through the Trust Fund for East Timor (TFET). East Timor's donors demanded a compliant government beholden to powerful corporate interests.

Since 1999, international donors have committed an estimated $3 billion for "post-conflict reconstruction" in East Timor. A European Commission evaluation of the TFET noted that over a third of allocated funds were eaten up by foreign consultants' fees, overheads and tied procurements, leaving little to address urgent problems of malnourishment, food security, clean water, preventable diseases and unemployment. Many former Falintil fighters particularly suffered.

In 2001, UNTAET established the FDTL and the PNTL through an agreement with the National Council, a consultative body of East Timorese political leaders headed by Gusmao. On advice from Kings College, London, UNTAET and the National Council set criteria for recruitment to the FDTL that could not be met by many former Falintil guerrilla fighters. Falintil veterans who were not successful were "reintegrated" into civilian life through a World Bank-funded program that left many poor and destitute.

According to Rahung Nasution, a Dili-based film-maker working for the Popular Education Institute, the transformation of Falintil into a regular army "destroyed the relationship which evolved along the struggle ... between the armed guerrilla fighters".

The demobilisation of Falintil — a force that could potentially have been mobilised for reconstruction projects within the country — was symptomatic of the demobilisation of the broader national liberation movement and an increasing reliance on foreign governments — particularly Australia and Portugal — to assist in reconstruction.

"In 1975, Fretilin integrated the struggle for national liberation with people's liberation through cooperative programs, eradication of illiteracy and development of a national culture. At that time Fretilin became a people's political force with a clear vision about the future of an independent Timor Leste. Unfortunately, these popular ideas which flourished in the 1970s are considered by many sections within Fretilin as outdated", said Nasution. "The liberal democracy promoted by the UN has turned political parties into electoral machines ... in which popular participation is removed."


While East Timor's political elite — including many of Alkatiri's Fretilin "comrades" — have sought to position themselves to benefit from their relationships with foreign donors, Alkatiri has so far resisted pressure to accept World Bank and IMF loans.

Alkatiri's government has established a Petroleum Fund, seeking to invest 90% of the national wealth obtained from oil and gas in long-term investment, while committing 10% to spending on health, education and agricultural programs. The Alkatiri government also plans to set up a state-owned petroleum company, assisted by China, Malaysia and Brazil, aimed at obtaining a bigger share of oil and gas revenue from the Timor Sea.

A domestic rice industry has increased production from 37,000 to 65,000 tonnes between 1998 and 2004, using aid to fund public grain silos, against policies advocated by the Australian government and the World Bank.

Through bilateral agreements between East Timor and Cuba, 220 Cuban doctors and 30 Cuban health technicians are working in clinics across 13 districts; hundreds of East Timorese students are studying medicine in Cuba (there are only 55 trained Timorese doctors); and Cuban education trainers are working alongside local teachers as part of a program of illiteracy eradication.

These modest measures have come under attack from much of East Timor's elite. In 2005, Alkatiri's opposition to compulsory religious education in schools prompted church-led protests, which had the backing of the US ambassador. These protests demanded the criminalisation of homosexuality and abortion, Alkatiri's resignation and the removal of "communists" from the government.

At the same time, Alkatiri has also been roundly criticised for a defamation law that severely curtails civil liberties.

Author Clinton Fernandes, in his book Reluctant Saviour: Australia, Indonesia and the Independence of East Timor, observed in 2004 that the East Timorese leadership "remains wary of harnessing the momentum of its people, choosing instead to make deals with Australian and Portuguese corporate interests, as well as with other international forces. [East Timor] finds its political independence constrained by its dependent, neo-colonial economy."

Today an East Timorese bourgeoisie — represented not only by Horta and Xanana, but also by an increasingly dominant faction within Fretilin — is consolidating its strength, based on close ties with Australian and other Western governments.

If Alkatiri is ousted, it will mark a significant setback for the East Timorese people and will consolidate Fretilin's transformation from a national liberation movement into a club of beneficiaries of foreign donor funds and the country's oil wealth.

If East Timor is to be genuinely free of the designs of its neo-colonial masters, it will require the mobilisation of its people, backed by the revival of a powerful solidarity movement in Australia.

From Green Left Weekly, June 28, 2006.
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