A prime minister deposed, but at great cost
July 10, 2006
Mari Alkatiri’s resignation was the culmination of a long-planned
attack, writes John Martinkus.
THREE weeks ago in East Timor I was given information from senior
members of the East Timorese military that confirmed what the now
deposed prime minister had been saying all along. There had been
three attempts since April last year to get senior command figures in
the East Timorese army to carry out a coup against the Government of
the former prime minister, Mari Alkatiri.
In light of what has happened since it seems obvious a very well
orchestrated campaign has been carried out to bring the Government
down. And it has worked. For reasons best known to themselves the
opposition to Alkatiri enlisted the support of a group of junior
officers in the East Timorese defence forces, the F-FDTL, who broke
with the army command and took their weapons with them. They attacked
the F-FDTL on May 23 and 24 and precipitated the widespread unrest in
Dili that led to the international forces being called in. Then came
the destruction of property by the gangs from the west, mainly aimed
at those from the east who are perceived as supporting the Fretilin
Government, then the string of allegations presented to the foreign
press, that finally led to Alkatiri’s resignation.
There is no doubt that whoever has been behind this campaign has
covered their tracks and it will be difficult to link the interests
involved to the destruction that has led to 150,000 East Timorese now
living in refugee camps around the capital, too afraid to go home.
But it was the plight of these people that was used as an instrument
by the opposition groups to call for Alkatiri’s removal even though
the same groups had initiated the violence in the first place. It was
a very callous and cynical political manoeuvre to say the least,
especially considering these people are now facing chronic food shortages.
But some obvious questions have not been answered by the Australian
press who have been almost unanimous in condemning the ruling
Fretilin party that, like it or not, did have an overwhelming mandate
to govern until mid next year that had been granted in elections
supervised by the UN and declared free and fair – with much fanfare,
I remember, as I covered them.
First, who started the violence? Surely in any other country if a
group of disaffected soldiers takes off with weapons and then
launches two very open assaults on the army, as Alfredo Reinado’s men
did on May 23 and 24, then shouldn’t they be arrested? Yet they were
given Australian SAS bodyguards and remain free after handing back
only a fraction of the weapons they took with them.
Second, who were these gangs that overwhelmingly targeted the homes
of those from the east who were perceived as supporting the Fretilin
Government? Brigadier Mick Slater, the commander of the Australian
forces in East Timor, whose men had to deal with these groups, said:
“There were definitely groups, let’s call them gangs, that were
definitely being manipulated and co-ordinated by other people from
outside that gang environment.”
Even after the resignation of Alkatiri, houses of Fretilin members
and those from the east were still being targeted and refugees
threatened. It revealed a lot about who had been behind the violence.
Third, who was making the allegations against Alkatiri and did they
stand up? After the violence subsided, the opposition to Alkatiri
seemed to take a different tack. There were the allegations and
rumours of a mass grave with 60, 70, 80, or as many as 500 victims of
an Alkatiri-ordered massacre – depending how far down the rumour
chain you heard the story. There was supposed to be a list of dead
held by a priest. Then there wasn’t, and the story fell by the
wayside. Next were the allegations by the so-called Alkatiri death
squad. Other reporters had been to see this group and some had chosen
not to report on it. They were located in the house of the
Carrascalao family and their story didn’t seem to be true. The
Carrascalaos are an established family in East Timor were
instrumental in the UDT party that fought a brief civil war with
Fretilin in 1975 – people with axes to grind.
There were other things about the death squad allegations that didn’t
make sense. When the F-FDTL base was attacked on May 24, men from
that same group participated in the attack alongside men from
Reinado’s group. It was an inconsistency picked up by Alkatiri
himself, who told me in Dili: “What kind of secret Fretilin group is
this that they are also fighting against the FDTL? This is contradictory.”
In short those who had been trying to find East Timorese officers to
act against the Government look like they have succeeded but at the
cost of the dislocation of 150,000 Timorese. Surely it would have
simply been easier to wait for next year’s elections.
Journalist John Martinkus is the author of several books, including A
Dirty Little War: An Eyewitness Account of East Timor’s Descent into
Hell 1997-2000 (Random House, 2001).