Testing time ahead for Gusmao

On September 12, the new East Timorese government led by Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, tabled the Government Program for 2007-12. The coalition Parliamentary Majority Alliance (AMP) believes the program will help alleviate poverty and resolve internal unrest and security issues. "Everything is urgent for this nation, [and] we are defining priorities for the short term", Gusmao told parliament.

The main opposition party, Fretilin, has strongly criticised the new government program and the capabilities of the AMP to govern. Aniceto Gutteres, the head of the Fretilin delegation in parliament, criticised the government over the short parliamentary period provided to debate the new program. Fretilin has also rebuked AMP for adopting parts of the program of the previous Fretilin government.

While Gusmao has professed a desire of his government to rapidly tackle poverty, a key social issue for the new government is also how to resolve the situation of the internally displaced persons (IDP), especially the IDP camps located in Dili.

The numbers in these camps have fluctuated around the 100,000 mark since the crisis of May last year. The camps have been the sites of simmering social and political tensions and subject to intimidation and extortion from criminal gangs. A lack of confidence in the authorities to resolve disputes in the camps has often resulted in "community justice" being meted out, further adding to a cycle of retribution and tension, especially between IDPs and neighbouring communities residents.

Another factor is the uncertainty among many IDPs about food scarcity and the availability of medical assistance and other services.

The previous Fretilin-led government was unable to provide re-settlement programs for the IDPs and the AMP has yet to come up with a satisfactory solution.

Post-election violence, especially after the announcement of the formation of the Gusmao-led AMP coalition on August 6, created a new wave of IDPs. The most significant upheaval took place in the eastern districts of Baucau and Viqueque, which are both Fretilin strongholds.

Initial reports estimated around 4000 people had fled their homes from thugs who staged attacks on various villages and towns suspected of being supporters of non-Fretilin parties.

In Baucau city, the second largest in East Timor, the offices of the religious aid organisation Caritas were attacked and the Catholic Relief Service office was burned down. Other non-government offices and food stores were also attacked, as were UN humanitarian convoys.

Based on information from UN and other humanitarian assessment teams, the Office for Co-ordinating Humanitarian Assistance determined at the end of August that some 5125 people in Viqueque and 2712 people in Baucau were displaced due to "their houses [being] burnt, destroyed, damaged or looted, others left their homes due to security concerns".

On the weekend of September 15-16, the rapid intervention unit of the East Timorese National Police (PNTL) arrested five PNTL officers and two civilians accused of arson attacks in Viqueque.

PNTL officers in Viqueque prior to the parliamentary and presidential elections were implicated in intimidation and violence against Gusmao's supporters.

Secretary of State Francisco Gutteres confirmed on September 19 that the arrested officers (including PNTL district commander Gaspar da Costa) have been accused of burning more than 300 houses.

While politically motivated acts of violence appear to have eased over the later part of September, there is the potential for further instability. Impatience and frustration with the new AMP government — as well as inter-party friction within the alliance — could see the situation quickly deteriorate.

Fretilin leaders have indicated that they are planning protest actions and street mobilisations in the coming period. Fretilin still considers the Gusmao-led government to be "unconstitutional".

The AMP and the East Timorese judiciary have also come under pressure from Fretilin leaders and others over the handling of the negotiations with Alfredo Reinado, the renegade army officer who escaped from prison in August 2006 while awaiting trial for murder during the May 2006 crisis.

Fretilin secretary-general Mari Alkatiri told the Indonesian daily Kompas on September 12 that the Gusmao "government has to be brought down. There is no other solution." He added that this "will not be done by violence".

Fretilin is planning to hold a national retreat in the southern town of Same on September 28 to plan its anti-government campaign. Alkatiri was reported by the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun on September 14 as saying that Fretilin is planning to bring together 1500 people from all over East Timor for an anti-government public rally in Same.

Alkatiri also reiterated his attitude toward the presence of Australian troops in East Timor as part of the International Stabilisation Force, stating: "This is an agreement between two states. It needs to be ratified by the parliament. And up to now the agreement was not ratified" by the East Timorese parliament.

He claimed that this "means their presence is completely illegal", adding that they are "lacking in neutrality".

In an interview conducted for the Australian New Matilda magazine dated September 14, Alkatiri responded in a si,milar vein when asked whether he was demanding a withdrawal of the ISF. "I am demanding that the presence of Australian troops in the country be based on law and [that] they be impartial", he said.