Interview with General Secretary of Fretilin, Mari
Alkatiri, in Dili
Sunday, November 6 2006
By John Loizou
Southeast Asian Times online
Is it possible to quantify how much the coup has cost
East Timor’s economic development?
It’s very, very difficult to do that now. It will
delay the execution of the current budget – the budget
of this fiscal year – and the budget for the last
fiscal year. But above all it has destroyed some
institutions and suspended others. The result is that
East Timor’s major problem now is its lack of
leadership and State authority. As you can very easily
see, there is no State authority in East Timor now;
the leadership is getting weaker and weaker and there
is an urgent need to recover from the crisis. This
will only happen through a joint effort of the
Who do you mean when you say the leadership?
The real national leadership in this country totals no
more than five people. The president, Xanana Gusmao,
the current prime minister, Jose Ramos Horta, the
president of the parliament, the commander of the
army…and myself of course. It’s very difficult for me
to say this but it’s a reality that as secretary
general of the country’s major political party, I
still have a role to play.
But is this happening? Is there an effort to create a
concerted effort among this five?
There is much effort by many people – Timorese and
non-Timorese to make it possible – to make it happen
but up till now no result.
What’s the major impediment?
I still don’t know. But I think it’s linked to a lack
of capacity by some to recognise their mistakes in a
concrete and objective way and not as a general
statement and a lack of capacity also to recognise
that our major mistake as leaders was to start
fighting each other as the result of much manipulation
promoted by others.
Who are these ‘others’?
This crisis was the result of a conspiracy. I have no
doubt about that.
By who or whom?
I can’t really identify individuals but from the facts
you can conclude that it was a conspiracy. It started
long ago. It started in 2001, 2002 and it’s going on
and on every year against the government.
Last year, as you know, the Catholic Church organized
the people for demonstrations for three weeks and they
failed. Since then they were always trying to get
support from institutions and individuals within the
country. Always with the same purpose: To force the
government to step down.
You are saying that the Church did this?
The Catholic Church. But the Catholic Church was not
alone. I don’t say it was the ‘whole’ Catholic Church.
But it was the hierarchy. And they were joined by
other groups. People from the opposition parties and
illegal groups within the country.
You mean militia or martial arts groups?
Not really martial arts but irregular organizations
that at the time of resistance even played a role
within the resistance movement.
They were from within the resistance or were part of
But why were they so disaffected that they started
causing trouble for the government?
There were some groups who joined the resistance for
their own purpose. It was not their clear objective to
fight for independence. What they were looking for was
to get the Indonesians out and then take their place.
You mean they wanted to get the Indonesians out and
then inherit the situation?
You have said there might have been a civil war if you
had not resigned?
I have no doubt of it.
But who would have fought the civil war and what would
have been the outcome?
I knew that if I had decided to resist all the
pressure to step down, I would have got support from
most of the members of Fretilin. It meant that they
would either have come down to Dili to resist or they
would do it in other districts. But they would do it
and we would really have had bloodshed and a civil
war. This is one of the reasons why I decided to give
up – to avoid the civil war and bloodshed. And I’m
sure that if it happened Fretilin would win. But this
is not the time to win power through bloodshed and
civil war. I would never accept staying as prime
minister in the government if it meant a civil war.
What, if any, are the similarities of UDT’s coup of
August 1975 and the civil war that followed –
especially remembering the activities of the
There are some similarities but in a different
context. When UDT staged its coup, we were fully aware
that after the coup we would be invaded by Indonesia.
That is why we fought against the coup. We were also
fully aware that the civil war would take a short
time. Now the situation is completely different.
So in other words the civil war would have been very
protracted if it came?
But you went to war in August 1975 knowing that the
consequences would be the arrival of the Indonesians?
Let us return to the Church. If it is the hierarchy
and other individuals why are they doing it?
Some people try to attribute their effort to ‘bad’
government. But they can’t really sustain this
argument because in our four years of government we
were considered by many, many development parties and
institutions as one of the best examples in the world.
There is no argument about this. And there is evidence
for it. Now they are trying to argue that it was
because the prime minister was arrogant. But this is
not reason enough for a coup particularly when such a
coup will ‘push back’ the country for years. To say
the reason is that the prime minister doesn’t smile is
no reason. Not only ‘push the country back’ but leave
thousands of people homeless. There is no argument to
defend this view. But I think and I do believe –
although they never say it – that the main reason was
that the prime minister was not a Catholic. And all
their actions were against the constitution.
But if I was to say that you have said that the
campaign against you was mounted because you were not
Catholic what will be the hierarchy’s response?
They will deny it. They will try to say it was my
mistake. I was arrogant and there was no effort to
create jobs. They will say many things like that.
But what would such an allegation do to your support
base within the country?
When the government inherits a vacuum in State
institutions the major priority for this government is
to create the State. It means public administration,
other institutions, defence and security and it means
most of the resources they get from international
donors must go to education, health and some
infrastructure. It was only a year ago – August
September last year – that we started to receive money
from oil and gas. That is why our budget this year is
a big budget. We couldn’t do the same two or three
But what I’m saying is that we are in a supposedly
Catholic country so if you are going to sit there as
general secretary of Fretilin and say the Church tried
to bring me down because I’m not a Catholic what is
that Church going to do…
No, no, I’m sure that this is not a problem for the
people of this country.
Yes but what will be their response when you attack
They will tell me not to worry about this. You are the
secretary general of Fretilin because you are a
founder of Fretilin. You are working well for the
people and this has nothing to do with religion. A
majority of the people will support me.
If we accept this thesis that the Church did what it
I can’t see another reason.
You say that your opponents wanted to form a
government of national unity. So what part did people
like the president and the new prime minister play.
Were they part of it before it all happened or were
No. They were facing a clear problem with some groups
spreading violence and aiming to have the prime
minister step down and the situation was difficult to
control by our own forces because the police and army
were fighting each other and then they thought it was
the best solution.
So you think they acted in good faith?
Not in good faith. The best solution would have been
to strengthen the institutions in solidarity. Not to
force the prime minister to step down because others
wanted them to do so. They should have supported the
But why didn’t they?
In my view, lack of courage.
You have argued that although the international force
has stabilized the situation, they really don’t
understand what has happened. Why?
Because they still think that the crisis here is a
power struggle between the prime minister, the former
prime minister and the president. But I reject fully,
So they still adhere to this theory?
Do they know the identity of those members of the
martial artists and the militia who are promoting the
They are becoming more familiar with the situation but
still they think that the initial reason for the whole
crisis came from a power struggle.
Do you think the ignoring of the constitution makes
the constitution inoperative?
No. It’s operative because as the major party we
decided to keep defending the constitution and try to
have people work again within the framework of the
constitution. Now we are working within the framework
of that constitution. We have accepted the situation
and what we are doing is defending the constitution.
You say the national leadership – the five you have
listed – made mistakes and they have to recognise
those mistakes. So what do you think were your
I never thought that it would be possible for minor
groups to be successful in forcing the prime minister
of a major party to step down.
So you underestimated your opponents?
Yes, I underestimated them. But in I also should have
paid more attention to the army and to the police. And
I should have paid more attention to the grassroots
organization of the party. We should also have worked
better with the media to inform public opinion. We did
a lot of things and people didn’t know.
East Timor was beginning to increase its yearly rice
production. Now it’s gone back. How long will that
take to recover?
Not less than three or four years.
If the leadership was to reunite and the State was
re-established what would be the priorities.
The priority is to rebuild the entire State
But what are the economic priorities?
If you don’t have an efficient public administration
and you start investing money in the economy you will
have corruption. So we must try and strengthen the
sub-national sectors of the public administration.
Districts and sub-districts. Strengthen them. And of
course you need to invest.
Infrastructure. Human development. Community
development. All are included in the current action
plan. But now with this crisis I think we need to
invest, we need to get jobs. We need to prepare the
people with skills for the jobs. But above all we need
to strengthen State institutions. All this will take
at least three or four years.
And what about the marine boundary with Australia?
Our priority is to make the country economically
independent and to avoid getting loans from others.
That’s why we decided to negotiate with Australia as a
priority the joint exploration and exploitation of
natural resources and it was a successful negotiation
with good results for Timor. Ninety percent from the
(joint authority) 50 percent from Sunrise and we were
thinking of pushing for the pipeline from Sunrise to
Timor-Leste. Now it will be more difficult but we will
keep pushing. But we are now in a very comfortable
financial situation. We have our own resources. We
have enough resources to start developing the country.
But what we need now is find out how to refine the
partnership between the state and civil society and to
redefine the partnership between Timor-Leste and
foreign investors and countries that have been
assisting us during the last five or six years.
So do you think parliament will still ratify the
I think so. Maybe with some reservations but I think
they will ratify it.
When do you think it will happen?
Maybe before the end of the year.
The commander of the army has said that Australian
troops here should be under UN control . Do you agree?
It’s the common position of many leaders and
institutions in Timor-Leste, including me. But the
reality is this: To have the Australian army as part
of the blue berets needs a resolution from the UN
Security Council and we can’t get it without
objections from the United States and Britain and
that’s why it’s better to be creative here and try to
set up a unified command. That would mean a trilateral
agreement between the government of Timor-Leste, the
United Nations and the coalition of forces led by
Australia and to have a unified command where the
commander of our army would participate.
So how long will the Timorese army stay in its
The present situation is unsustainable. We need to get
the army involved and the sooner the better.
Side-by-side with the international forces. This is
why the unified command is so important. I don’t think
it’s difficult to get it.
How long will it take?
Two, three or four weeks I do believe.
Have you heard any of the East Timorese complaining
about the behaviour of the Australians?
Yes and I have been saying that if there are any
complaints it’s better that they be investigated.
Instead of resisting any investigation it’s better to
open an investigation.
But who are the people complaining?
Normal people. People from the displaced people camps
and outside. Many have been complaining and many have
been spreading rumours and that’s why I believe it’s
best to investigate.
And who should investigate?
The United Nations, Australia and the government of
Timor-Leste. But not all the complaints are genuine.
Some people are using the situation to create
But why do people want to spread rumours and keep the
Because people are not really happy with the
situation. They tried for a coup and now they will not
be happy until Fretilin disappears.
How do you explain that the two mutineers who escaped
from jail are still to be arrested?
This sense of impunity doesn’t help. I have made it
clear already to the government and to the Australian
forces that they must use their authority to bring
those people to justice.
Why is that not happening?
I still don’t understand if it’s technical or
political. Perhaps it’s a mixture.
But if political by whom?
There has been an attempt particularly by the
president, but also the prime minister, to settle the
crisis through dialogue and appeal to those people.
But you can’t really govern a country through dialogue
So what you are saying is that they refuse to make a
Yes. They have avoided the decision.
You have said the investigation by the three men
appointed by United Nations General Secretary Kofi
Annan was not satisfactory because they did not ask
how it happened. So what questions should they have
attempted to answer?
Firstly, why they ignored so many facts.
Meetings at the president’s place with people who were
putting pressure on him to force me to step down.
Meetings between Ramos Horta and Reinado, Ramos Horta
and Railos; Ramos Horta and Tara and other petitioners
during the crisis. They promised everybody that they
would not restart the violence and then restarted it.
The allegations of weapons distribution. They (the
investigators) made a thorough investigation. Why in
their report do they consider it a minor problem?
What are these allegations of weapon distribution?
One of the allegations was that Fretilin had imported
illegally two or three containers of weapons and
distributed them to Fretilin members. But when they
investigated this issue they came to the conclusion
that there had been no illegal import of weapons for
distribution to the members. In the report they simply
ignore it. Why?
So when the now Prime Minister Ramos Horta met with
these men was it during the violence?
During the trouble.
So during the trouble he met with them?
And who were the people who tried to put pressure on
the president to have you resign?
At least one of the bishops.
And after all that you’re still prepared to work with
Gusmao and Horta?
Horta comes here to see me once a week. In the
interest of the nation and the government, I’m
prepared to work with them but we need to define
clearly a new framework .
You are not going to stand for prime minister at the
No. I think it’s much more important to work for the
party. To make it better organised.
You say that Fretilin’s support has grown. Why?
I’m sure of that. When you are in a democracy people –
even Fretilin members – think that because of the
democracy they can chose another party. But when they
realise that it also creates an opportunity for them
to be targeted by others, they realise it’s better to
support their own party. And don’t forget the link
between Fretilin and the people comes from the time of
the liberation movement and it’s still very strong.
So you think they will support Fretilin despite the
criticisms they might have of Fretilin?
Yes. The only way to defend real independence and the
sovereignty of the country is with Fretilin.
Has Indonesia played any role in what has happened?
As a government no. But maybe there are still some
people trying to do something but what we are seeing
in this country is ex-militias that are behind these
groups that are spreading violence in Dili and other
The decision to allow militia members back to East
Timor – was that a mistake?
The decision was not a mistake. The way it was done,
maybe. To have them back is right. But to put them
into institutions like the army and the police was a
mistake. They were immediately admitted by the United
Nations into the police because it was thought the
easiest way to build the police force was to use
people who had already been police for the Indonesians
because they had had some training. So they were the
very first admitted to the police and that was a
And now the vexed question of language. Many –
especially the Australians – scorn the use of
Portuguese. What is your answer to their criticism?
This is nonsense. It’s part of the whole culture of
our decision to strengthen our independence and
sovereignty. We know it’s not easy to make Portuguese
again the lingua franca of East Timor in a very short
time. But we do believe that Timor-Leste needs to be
different in this region. But it doesn’t mean that we
are against others. We need good relations with
Australia and Indonesia – all over. But as Timorese,
and not an extension of others.
But aren’t the young disappointed because they can’t
find jobs in the civil service without Portuguese?
It’s not true. Most of the people in the civil service
are now speaking some Portuguese. But they were
admitted to the job with no knowledge of Portuguese.
There is no discrimination.
Why has the violence not spread beyond Dili?
This is a good question. Most of the jobless people
are in Dili. It’s in Dili that you have the gangs.
Some organized through martial arts, others not. It’s
the country’s only big city. We have more or less
200,000 people in Dili – too many for a very small
city. That’s why it’s easy to spread trouble in Dili
and spread violence.
Should you have had a program to stop young people
coming to Dili?
This is one of our policies and plans. To create new
opportunities and jobs within the interior of the
country and create five or six small cities with a
quality of life better than in Dili. It can be done
and it needs to be done to stop people coming down to
So what should be the population of Dili in the
country’s population of about one million?
Not more than 50,000. Laughter.