No Solution In Sight For Army Deserters

Setyo Budi

DILI, May 5 (IPS) – While Gastao Salsinha ­ leader of the group of renegades accused of attempting to assassinate President Jose Ramos-Horta on Feb. 11 ­ has surrendered, there is little sign of amicable rehabilitation for some 600 army deserters.

Most of the deserters, called petitioners, reject the solution offered by the government to reapply to join the Falintil-Forças de Defesa de Timor Leste (F-FDTL) as fresh recruits.

”All of us want to go back to F-FDTL but we don’t want to reapply, otherwise it is better for all of us to be out of there. They (authorities) need to understand that there are 600 of us and our families,” Roberto (not real name), a 25-year-old petitioner who now resides with the other renegades in their cantonment in Ai-tarak Laran in Dili, told IPS in a secret interview.

The Dili government had earlier decided to sack the renegade soldiers, most of whom had deserted their barracks in 2006 after claiming to have been discriminated against in the matter of promotion and benefits.

Until now there has been no satisfactory solution to the serious internal rift within the army running along regional lines. The sacking of the deserters had triggered violence that left 37 people dead and caused 150,000 others to flee their homes.

Many see the attempt on Ramos Horta’s life as one more episode in a bitter dispute between the government and the renegades over perceptions of regional discrimination. Salsinha had taken over command of the rebels after their leader, Alfredo Reinado, was killed in the attempt on the President’s life, but has since been negotiating the surrender that took place on Tuesday.

But the government has not taken kindly to the petitoners’ demand for unconditional rehabilitation within the F-FDTL. ”The government is not open for negotiation,” Joaquim Fonseca, advisor to East Timor’s prime minister, told IPS.

The petitioners’ demand has been reiterated by Salsinha after his surrender, according to a source in the United Movement for National Justice (MUNJ), which backed the petitioners through the 2006 political conflict. ”They deserted their barracks because they wanted to help fix problems within their institution,” the MUNJ source told IPS, asking not to be named.

”I ran away from the barracks not to be sacked. I did it because I was discriminated against and I wanted to help solve the problems within F-FDTL,” said Roberto angrily.

The government’s decision has turned Roberto’s life upside down. As the only son of a poor farmer family, Roberto has to support his aged parents as also five sisters.

Like others in the barracks, Roberto blamed politicians for ”exploiting the problems of the petitioners” and then leaving them in the lurch.

Allegations of discrimination within the F-FDTL were a contentious political issue in 2006, and one of the parties that harped on the issue during the presidential and parliamentary elections is the Democratic Party (PD) that is headed by Fernando Lasama de Araujo, a leading politician.

Through its youth wing, Pemuda Demokrat (Democratic Youth), the petitioners’ issue was used to mobilise people from districts to come to Dili and demonstrate against the government, then run by the Fretilin party.

”Pemuda Demokrat used the petitioners’ issue to consolidate and mobilise the masses to support Fernando Lasama for president and to vote for PD during the national parliament election,” said Mateus Xavier, a PD advocacy coordinator.

PD had also asked the petitioners to lend their support to Horta for the 2007 – 2012 presidential term. One of the points of political agreement that was signed between Horta and Fernando Lasama during the second round of the presidential election campaign was that petitioners would continue to be recognised as members of the F-FDTL.

That agreement was subsequently forgotten and the government later decided to formally sack the petitioners.

”It is a major concession on F-FDTL (offer to allow the petitioners to reapply as fresh recruits). They are now flexible. Discipline in the army is strict, you cannot go in and out as you please,” said Ramos Horta at a press conference on his return to Dili after undergoing surgery in Australia for gunshot wounds.

Vital dos Santos, PD parliamentarian, sympathised with the petitioners’ grievances. He told IPS that the ”petitioners have become victims of the political leaders’ ambitions… it is not fair. They don’t have the motivation to launch a coup”.

That the petitioners’ problems were politicised was acknowledged in the draft report of a high-level commission that was set up to inquire into the 2006 events. The report states: ”The petitioners feel that the situation (in F-FDTL) is not in their favour, so they tried to find a solution, but outside political intervention provoked a bigger crisis. This was aggravated by political actions (demonstrations), military actions (shoot outs), organised violence that affected peoples’ lives.”

Tiago Sarmento, a former member of the commission, told IPS that the ”discrimination and indisciplinary acts within the institution (F-FDTL) were often politicised”.

As a member of the Majority Parliament Alliance, East Timor’s ruling coalition, PD cannot escape blame, Sarmento said. ‘’PD actively used petitioners to garner support and come to power.”

Santos however rejected the accusation. ‘’Their (petitoners’) problems cannot be solved only by the PD. We want the government and petitioners to have dialogue.”

While the government has rejected any dialogue, the petitioners have strong backers within the PD. ”We still demand that the petitioners go back to F-FDTL, otherwise the crisis will not be over soon,” Xavier told IPS.

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