TIMOR-LESTE: BEHIND THE DEMONISATION OF MARI ALKATIRI
Estêvão Cabral and Julie Wark
At a panel on the state of the world’s media hosted by Columbia University in New York last April, the veteran journalist Robert Fisk expressed outrage at the semantic distortion that bedevils understanding of events that affect us all and, worse, affect a great many people in ways that are unimaginable, (thanks to media versions) in homes where the media has a presence and opinions are formed. He suggested that the New York Times, so prone to citing different “officials” might just as well call itself “American Officials Say”. The coverage of the recent strife in newly-independent Timor-Leste is a salient case of this. The media, especially the Australian media (News from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade), has offered a particularly distorted view of the crisis. Such misrepresentations are endlessly repeated until they become “truth” in the public conscience, but they also offer confirmation of the old adage that one way to the truth is by comparison of the lies.
The prism through which the events in Timor-Leste are presented is that of the “failed state”. These words are meant to ring alarm bells and Australian Defence Minister, Brendan Nelson wasted no time in pointing out that failed state equals terrorism: “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 “failed state” tag in Australia has the added advantage of hinting at the evils lying in wait in the legitimate aspirations of the people of West Papua to independence, a very thorny diplomatic issue with Indonesia (which, though it is never mentioned, ranks number 32 on the 2006 Foreign Policy Failed States Index, below Malawi and Burkina Faso and more failed than Angola and Togo).
Evil is represented as embodied in the figure of one person. Identifying a single scapegoat suggests that his removal will magically make all well again. Many people today think of “Muslim” and “terrorist” as related, if not synonymous terms. The Muslim Prime Minister of Timor-Leste, Mari Alkatiri, appears in the press through man-in-the-street interviews as a “terrorist” (not to mention “traitor” and “killer”), a word that then returns press-verified and reinforced to the street. What lies behind these depictions of Alkatiri?
The present situation in Timor-Leste is very difficult, and Australia has not a little to do with it by putting Timor-Leste literally over the barrel with its delaying tactics in negotiations over disputed oil and gas rights, thereby denying desperately needed revenue to the country in its crucial first years. Timor-Leste has the lowest per capita GDP in the world, $400, with over 40% of the population still subsisting below the poverty line on less than 50 US cents per day, although the first $600 million of oil revenue have now been received and billions more are expected in coming years. Food production is a huge problem in this fertile, devastated land yet Australia and the World Bank refused to rebuild the rice industry (when imports amounted to a succulent $220 million per year). With massive unemployment, the streets are full of traumatised and alienated youth with a great capacity for violence, and susceptible to attempts of diehard former militia, political factions and pro-Indonesia elements to create instability. The average age of the population is 20 years.
Another major disaffected group is the former Falantil (Forças Armadas de Libertação Nacional de Timor-Leste), who fought for independence. As an alliance of different ethnic groups, they prevailed in the 24 years of independence struggle largely because of their grassroots-politics skills in the local communities in which they moved. Yet the “non-political” police force, with its better (Indonesian) training, was given priority by the transitional United Nations government (UNTAET, 1999 – 2002) in creating the country’s (European-style) security forces. Some communities were thus over-represented and others very under-represented in terms of loyalties and recognition in a situation where all jobs were scarce. Herein lie the roots of the “new” development of east-west hostilities and much responsibility for this may be laid at the door of the UN and its advisers from King’s College London. Falintil demoralisation and anger was clear as early as 2000. “Falantil sees itself as a force that gained the victory but has never even had a victory parade”, reported The Australian at the time (28 June 2000).
Added to this (already Molotov) cocktail of the factors involved in the present crisis, are the ideological and personal differences between President Xanana Gusmao and Mari Alkatiri, which were soon represented, inter alia, in the east-west ethnic hostilities. Then, Defence Minister Roque Rodrigues and army chief Brig. Gen. Taur Matan Ruak sacked some 600 (mainly westerner) troops in April after demonstrations against discrimination. They were acting on UN legal advice, which did not save the Prime Minister from being held responsible or from being openly criticised by President Xanana Gusmao, which inflamed matters even more.
The “wily Marxist” (The Australian, May 31) Alkatiri is held responsible for everything, except in his own party Fretilin, which led the country to independence. Here he has up to 200,000 relatively politicised and mobilisable supporters, which, no doubt, is one reason why Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer changed his tune about ousting Alkatiri. In contrast to the wily Marxist terrorist are his political rivals the “universally loved and admired” (ibid) President Xanana Gusmao, the “ever-obliging” (ibid) Nobel laureate Foreign Minister (and new Defence Minister) José Ramos-Horta and the “popular” Australian troops who have arrived to save the country, though they have been criticised for being notably passive about the arson and looting in sectarian attacks. The rebel leader Major Alfredo Reinado (loyal to Xanana Gusmao, grateful to Australian troops, lover of Australian VB beer and enemy of Alkatiri) is described in surprisingly neutral terms: he is merely “swaggering” and “Australian-trained”.
“Mozambique” means “Marxist” in this story. During the occupation years the former Portuguese colony (and let us not forget historic links) offered scholarships for Timorese to study so that they would be prepared to return to their country as well-prepared leaders. With an academic background in law and economics, his work as a surveyor and his lobbying experience at the UN and in Africa, Mari Alkatiri was, thanks to his long years in exile in Mozambique, by far the best-equipped Timorese to negotiate the Timor Sea Agreement with Australia over natural gas and oil resources. His toughness and evident negotiating skills did not endear him to the Australians, who resorted to withdrawing from the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea and unilaterally issuing licences.
Again, Alkatiri was one of the main architects of the Magna Carta of the National Council of Timorese Resistance, a document that brought the country’s future policies in line with international standards (such as those set by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea). An economic nationalist, he is concerned about environmental and women’s issues and is against privatisation of electricity. He sees the need to diversify the country’s economic options and believes that a state-owned petroleum company assisted by Norway, Portugal, China, Malaysia and Brazil will benefit Timor-Leste more than giving Australia a monopoly on its oil and gas. Among other “unpatriotic” acts, he proposed scrapping primary school fees, rejected World Bank loans (Timor-Leste is debt-free), brought Cuban doctors to work in rural areas and set up a new medical school at the national university. Alkatiri is also condemned, as if he alone were responsible, for Portuguese being the country’s official language. The lingua franca, Tetum, and Portuguese have much in common after hundreds of years of colonial contact so some linguists argue it is a logical choice, but maintaining this Lusophone link and wisely diversifying diplomatic and economic options may not be viewed so kindly in Australian official circles.
The Prime Minister is also “arrogant”, which he happily accepts in an interview with the Spanish daily El País (2 June, 2006). “Arrogant? Even my family says so. But I am sensitive. What I don’t have is this Javanese culture of smiling at everything and then stabbing people in the back.” This could also be called directness. Certainly, the man who comes across in this interview (where he is exceptionally permitted press space to speak for himself) is intelligent, witty and ironic, not to mention patriotic, qualities that are absent in second-hand portrayals of him in the Australian press. With regard to the contrasting personal styles of the President and the Prime Minister, it is also fair to point out a certain division of labour. Unlike the much more visible, among-the-people Xanana Gusmao, Alkatiri in his world of facts, figures and policy doesn’t particularly require charm and other PR skills.
On June 4, an editorial in The Australian, apropos of the possibility of ousting Timor-Leste’s Prime Minister (because “regime change” is what it is all about for everyone from the Australian Prime Minister John Howard, the rebel leader Reinado, Ramos-Horta, first lady Kirsty Sword Gusmao … who have all said so in so many words), opined, “And while he commands a parliamentary majority, there is not a great deal, beyond the most discreet diplomatic advice, that Australians can do to secure the essential circuit-breaker his departure would provide.” The Australian government is set on achieving this “circuit-breaker” (a quaint euphemism for coup) through its peace-keeping operation. There are very big issues at stake in the “tiny statelet”, another term journalists like to use as if smallness can divert our attention from them: abundant oil and natural gas resources, with China as a prospective partner, rejection of Australian aid-tied agricultural liberalisation policies and flying in the face of big-power politics in general. Ramos-Horta, however, is very sympathetic to big-power security considerations, writing (in a prophetic foretaste of what the press is now saying about his country) of the US occupation of Iraq. “Retreat is not a viable option for the costs would be far too high for U.S. vital interests in the Middle East and the world as a whole. Iraq would inevitably descend into a Somalia-like failed state […]. (Asian Wall Street Journal, 17 October 2005). Is he equally understanding about Australia’s “vital interests”?
The scene was set for a “circuit-breaker” a long time ago in the name of these interests. An Australian Defence Force document dated 10 May 2001 states, “Policy guidance … is caveated [sic] by the consideration that Australia has limited direct control over the development of the East Timor Defence Force […]. The first objective … is to pursue Australia’s broad strategic interests in East Timor, namely denial, access and influence. The strategic interest of denial seeks to ensure that no foreign power gains an unacceptable level of access to East Timor, and is coupled with the complementary objective of seeking access to East Timor for Australia, in particular the ADF. Australia’s strategic interests can also be protected and pursued more effectively if Australia maintains some degree of influence over East Timor’s decision-making.” Australia has begun a long occupation of Timor-Leste and is well positioned, with very “direct control”, to pursue its “strategic interest of denial” and, however much this looks like a coup, the press will pursue its “strategic interest of denial” as well.
 Reuters, Sunday 4 June 2006: http://today.reuters.com/News/CrisesArticle.aspx?storyId=SYD331963 (last accessed 8 June, 2006).
 See Tim Anderson 2006, “What is Howard’s Role in the Timor-Leste Coup?” http://www.melbourne.indymedia.org/news/2006/05/113555.php (last accessed 4 June 2006).
 See Helen Hill, “Stand up, the Real Mr Alkatiri”, The Age, 1 June 2006.
 Bulletin, 2006:http://bulletin.ninemsn.com.au/bulletin/site/articleIDs/D5B6AEEEB251FC27CA25717A002BA708?open&ui=dom&template=domPrint (Last accessed 6 June 2006).
TAPOL, the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign