East Timor: Horta’s Assailants Scot-Free Thanks to Politics

Inter Press Service

April 3, 2008

Analysis by Setyo Budi

DILI – If the renegade soldiers who attempted to assassinate East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta on Feb. 11 remain scot-free, it has more to do with the complex politics of this fledgling country than a failure of the armed forces, domestic or international, that protect it.

While rebel leader Alfredo Reinado and one of his men were killed in the shooting outside the President’s house on Feb. 11, his second-in-command, Gastao Salsinha, walked away with a large number of rebels.

Horta, who is still in Australia recovering from nearly fatal gunshot injuries, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), last week, that but for the indecision of United Nations’ peacekeepers the rebels could have been captured soon after he was attacked. ”For many hours after the attack on my house, they (the rebels) were still in the hills around my house,” Horta told ABC.

Among the unanswered questions surrounding the alleged assassination attempt is how Reinado and his heavily armed men could have passed unhindered through U.N. peacekeeping cordons, consisting mostly of Australian troops, to reach Horta’s residence on the fateful day.

Following the assassination bid a ‘state-under-siege’ was declared and joint-operations, consisting of over 400 security personnel drawn from the Falintil-Forças de Defesa de Timor Leste (F-FDTL) and the Policia National de Timor Leste (PNTL), were mounted to search for and arrest Salsinha and the rebels.

Mid-March, the joint-forces had the rebels encircled, but, after a standoff that lasted a few days, were allowed to escape as a result of political intervention.

“To me all of this looks like a game. Once the prosecutor- general states that Salsinha is the one who did it and a state-under-siege has been declared they should go out there and capture Salsinha,” Mario Carrascalao, president of Democratic Socialist Party (DSP), part of the ruling coalition, told IPS in an interview.

Last week, parliament approved extension of state-under-siege situation for another 30 days, till Apr. 23. But many consider the extension pointless as there have been no serious attempts to capture the rebels.

Carrascalao, one of the parliamentarians who rejected the extension, said: ”The extension is a way for the government to prevent early elections, a process that takes six months.” As part of the attempt to address East Timor’s ongoing political crisis, U.N. Secretary General Ban ki-Moon has agreed to a proposal to hold elections earlier than in 2009 as scheduled.

The failure to capture Salsinha may have been deliberate and further bloodshed could prove politically costly. So far, the joint-operation has stuck to following rebels’ movements. “The terrain is harsh, a lot of valleys and hills, quite dense coffee trees, and rainy all the time and we don’t have night goggles,” Filomeno Paixao, the joint-operation spokesperson, told IPS.

But Paixao admitted that the reason Salsinha and his men were allowed to get away was because ”they are not considered as enemy. What we are interested is evidence, to bring them to tribunal.”

Earlier, addressing a press conference, Brig Gen Taur Matan Ruak, F-FDTL commander, said: “We don’t want Salsinha dead, he needs to tell us what happened over the last two years, but I want to tell him that he should not shoot any of my soldiers.”

Salsinha may be privy to much sensitive information. After all he was the leader of the group of soldiers that deserted their barracks in January 2006 and became known as the ‘petitioners’ who sparked a political crisis that led to serious ethnic conflicts between easterners and westerners on the half-island country.

A new revelation made by Longinous Monteiro, East Timor’s prosecutor general, that Salsinha and his group received political backing from a prominent politician (his name cannot be mentioned for security reasons) to avoid surrender shows that the Feb. 11 incident had clear political underpinnings.

Paixao said members of the Salsinha group that escaped left behind uniforms, boots, tin food, and a Motorola mobile phone that contained numbers belonging to prominent politicians.

For ordinary East Timor people the situation is confusing. On the one hand the government has declared a state-under-siege and on the other it continues to dialogue with Salsinha and his group.

Tiago Sarmento, law programme manager at the Asia Foundation East Timor, questions the government’s seriousness in implementing the declaration of state-under-siege. ”When the state is under siege, there is no more negotiation, no more bargaining, but it is not happening. Instead, the government makes offers to Salsinha and his members. The government sends troops not to capture Salsinha but to protect him.”

Arsenio Bano, vice-president of Fretilin, which holds a plurality of seats in parliament, told IPS that parties within the AMP coalition government have misled people. ”During the election campaign, Fernando Lasama (president of the Democratic Party) even had an agreement with Alfredo and Salsinha to acknowledge their existence as armies and even told the petitioners that they were friends of the government,” he said.

The joint-operation is the first by the F-FDTL since the institution was wrecked by ethnic divisions between easterners and westerners in 2006. This division prompted the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) to conduct studies which called for drastic reforms. In a report, ICG pointed to a lack of transparency within the F-FDTL and that promotions were based on political affiliation rather than merit.

During an interview with IPS, Sophia Cason, former ICG researcher in East Timor, said: ”The politicisation is not necessarily along party lines, but for personal reasons. Most (F-FDTL) members are loyal to Brig. Gen. Taur Matan Ruak who has declared that he is not a member of any party but has personal links to Xanana Gusmao, Mari Alkatiri (former prime minister and Fretilin leader) and Roque Rodrigues.”

The joint-operation is a test for F-FDTL to show performance and professionalism and meet people’s expectations, Cason said. ”The reform of the military institution is now more urgent than before. To do it all political parties have to be committed.”

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Joyo Indonesia News Service

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