From Green Left Weekly, July 19, 2006.
EAST TIMOR: The people are paying the price
Avelino Coelho da Silva, Dili
The conflict that arose recently in Timor Leste
has caused more suffering for the nation’s poor
people, confronting them with an uncertain
economic and political future.
This conflict need not have happened if all the
country’s politicians had put the interests of
the people first and not their own desire for
power. Their attitudes have resulted in hundreds
of thousands of people losing their homes, other
possessions or their livelihoods. Now they must
live in tents provided by the United Nations High
Commission for Refugees.
The conflict developed in the first instance
around the issue of Loro Sae versus Loron Monu,
or east versus west. Yet this ethnic issue has
never been a serious problem in this country.
During the last few weeks, it has grown so
quickly, resulting in the breakdown of the good
neighbourly relations that had existed here among
East Timorese people of different ethnicity and religion.
This is truly a tragedy! But it has happened.
In the current reality, we see so much irony, as
is often the case as history and revolutions
unfold. If we read some of the placards and
banners that appeared during the recent
demonstrations, we might laugh or we might get
seriously stressed. For example, there were
banners reading “Viva capitalism! Out with the
communists!” So our question is; are Timor
Leste’s politicians that ignorant? Did the people
who wrote those banners know what they really wanted?
We can answer here both yes and no. Yes, because
those behind the demonstrations were indeed
trying to paint former Prime Minister Mari
Alkatiri [who was pressured to resign on June 26]
as a communist that there was a communist
governing the country. And we can answer also
“no” because the young people carrying those
banners were from poor village and town families
that have no familiarity at all with ideas such
as capitalism versus communism. It is actually
some very non-communist policies policies with
no left character at all that have created this
poorest class of young men and women.
For somebody to be accurately classified as a
communist, his/her policies should show some
similarity to communist ideas. Yet Alkatiri, and
the Fretilin government he has led, have not the
slightest communist colouring. The social system
that has been fostered is one based on the
existence of rich and poor classes. The Alkatiri
government has implemented no policies aimed at
ending this gap. Worse still, the Alkatiri
government’s policies have worsened the
situation, with the phenomenon of cronyism
exacerbating the rich-poor gap. It is a public
secret that senior officials have tended to
The economic policies of Alkatiri and Fretilin
have tended to promote privatisation. There have
been no indications that the Alkatiri government
is interested in nationalising any private firms.
There have been no signs of a left orientation
towards land reform. The gap between rich and
poor has grown. Agriculture has been abandoned so
that the country as a whole is dominated by trade
and by private traders. The peasant farmers have
grown poorer under these capitalist policies. You
can see the irony of them carrying banners
stating “Viva capitalism! Down with communism!”
Public utilities such as electricity, telephone,
land and air transportation are all controlled by
foreign private firms. All the needs of the
government are also supplied by private firms,
not public companies or cooperatives.
Alkatiri and Fretilin have not organised the
people in the way you would expect from a
left-wing party. Fretilin has tended to turn
itself into a party of the elite, which will
mobilise the people from time to time to defend
the party’s interests, while ignoring the actual
interests of the people. Fretilin under Alkatiri
has divorced itself from the people and its
leaders have adopted the lifestyle of the
In the cultural field, the Fretilin membership
and its cabinet are religious in orientation.
They show no signs of wanting to fight against
the culture and religion of East Timor. The state
radio and television gives more time to religious
programming than to political education for the people.
The hostility towards Alkatiri flows from the
struggle for power among the elite politicians.
Several parties and their leaders are afraid of
elections because they know that they cannot
defeat Fretilin. At the last local elections, at
the suco (village) and aldeia (sub-village)
level, Fretilin won 80% of the positions. These
results indicate that the country will remain
dominated by Fretilin until the people’s
political consciousness develops further and they
decide to support parties based on their
political program and ideology and not based on
the fictional history of a movement or party.
It was these political factors, supplemented by
the interests of neighbouring countries vis-a-vis
oil and gas, that the process developed to paint
Alkatiri as a “communist”. There was the hope
that this could be used to mobilise the masses to
defeat Alkatiri and Fretilin at the coming elections.
Another factor contributing to this situation has
been Alkatiri’s own leadership style. He takes a
confrontational approach towards everybody
and appears as arrogant.
What has happened in East Timor is not the case
of a left-wing Alkatiri and Fretilin government
being forced out of power by mass mobilisations.
Alkatiri fell because he was disliked by some
other elite politicians and because Fretilin was
not able to bring forward another person capable
of being a prime minister and of forming a new
government. So some still hope that Fretilin can
be destroyed at the next elections. That is what
this is about: right-wing against right-wing.
After Alkatiri stepped down from his throne,
speculation spread as to who might be his
replacement. The newspaper Suara Timor Loro Sae
reported that leaders of the various
demonstrations started to promote Mario
Carrascalao, a leader of the Social Democratic
Party. They started to say that Jose Ramos Horta
no longer had the support of the people. Why
were they saying this?
Initially, it was stated [in a speech by
President Xanana Gusmao] that the Fretilin
leadership was not legitimate, because the
Fretilin congress used a vote by show of hands
and not a secret ballot to elect it. Yet
negotiations went ahead with the Fretilin
leadership and a compromise was reached. Out of
this compromise, Horta emerged as the new prime
minister. This was the result of a compromise
among the political elite. The opposition
politicians were outraged and again began to
The policies outlined by Horta in his swearing-in
speech indicate that there will be no substantial
changes in policy. Working closely with the
International Monetary Fund and World Bank has
become a part of the reality here. The promises
of building housing, of building an “academic
town” and of distributing motorbikes to suco
heads fosters false hopes. There are no signs of
policies that can take the Timorese people out of
their economic misery.
Alkatiri has fallen, but Horta’s government is a
Fretilin government. The president of Fretilin,
Lu’olo, has made it clear that Horta must meet
every week with the president and
secretary-general of Fretilin and every month
with Fretilin’s national political commission.
Horta has been steadily distancing himself from
the opposition parties. Horta hopes to remain
prime minister after the election by gaining
Who has won and who has been defeated? The
people again are the losers.
[Avelino Coelho da Silva is the secretary-general
and national political commissioner of the
Socialist Party of Timor.]
From Green Left Weekly, July 19, 2006.