East Timor: Governing coalition on brink of collapse

Tony Iltis

9 May 2008

A realignment of political forces appears to be underway in East Timor, with the signing of an agreement for a strategic alliance for future elections between the largest party in parliament, the Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor (Fretilin), and the Timorese Social Democratic Association (ASDT) ­ the second largest party in the coalition of non-Fretilin parties that has held government since the July 2007 parliamentary elections.

While the ASDT will remain in the current government of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, both parties are calling for these elections to be brought forward to early 2009. This was apparently agreed to by President Jose Ramos Horta at a February 7 all-party meeting.

A joint Fretilin-ASDT platform, released on May 7, emphasised the common heritage between the two parties in East Timor’s long struggle for independence.

The platform described ASDT leader Francisco Xavier do Amaral as the “proclaimer of independence” (having made the November 1975 declaration of independence from Portugal that was quickly followed by Indonesia’s Australian-backed invasion and occupation) and Fretilin leader Francisco Guterres Lu’olo as the “restorer of independence” (as in his position as president of the national parliament, he officially restored the independence proclamation in May 2002).

Timor Sea

The intervening quarter-century of Indonesian occupation saw the death of 300,000 Timorese (a third of the population) and the 1991 Timor Gap Treaty between Indonesia and Australia that granted the latter a disproportionate share of the oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea.

Since the re-establishment of formal independence, Australia has used its position of power over the impoverished half-island to enforce an agreement, in violation of what East Timor is entitled to under international law, that grants Australia control over the majority of gas and oil reserves in the Timor Sea.

According to a May 5 Fretilin media release, the agreement is a response to a situation whereby “despite the people of Timor Leste having been liberated from centuries of foreign domination, the people are once again living under a government full of nepotism, corruption, collusion and injustice, and we are witnessing the persecution of our patriots.

“The situation has once again dragged our people into living lives of fear of those in political power and of a loss of hope for the economic development of their nation.”

One of the joint platform’s demands is for the establishment of an “International Commission of Investigation” into the confused events on February 11 in which Ramos Horta was shot and seriously injured.

An article in the April 22 Australian reported that East Timor is awash with rumours about the shoot-out, including speculation that Major Alfedo Reinado, the Australian-trained military police officer who was killed in the attack, was “set up” and Australia was behind the incident in a bid to remove Ramos Horta. Reinado led a May 2006 mutiny that resulted in the overthrow of Fretilin Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri and the deployment of the Australian-dominated International Stabilisation Force (ISF).

It is unlikely that Australia would have attempted to assassinate Ramos Horta as his coming to power was supported by Canberra. Both Fretilin and grassroots NGOs have accused Australia of violating East Timor’s sovereignty by both playing a role Alkatiri’s overthrow and using the ISF to influence the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2007.

ISF’s role

Any genuine inquiry into the February 11 shootings would need to investigate many unanswered questions surrounding the 2006 violence, which left 37 people dead and 150,000 homeless from arson attacks, which increased after the deployment of the ISF.

Among the questions are how Reinado and his followers managed to escape from ISF custody and take to the hills with weapons in August 2006. In two DVDs that circulated in the months leading up to his death, Reinado claimed that in 2006 he was acting under direct orders from then-president Gusmao and that he had been promised high office in a post-Alkatiri government.

The most likely explanation for what happened at Ramos Horta’s residence on February 11 was that Reinado and his supporters went to the president’s home with the intention of strong-arming him into delivering his earlier promise of an amnesty, but were met with unexpected resistance from the president’s body-guards. Even more questions surround the alleged attack on Gusmao the same day, which saw the PM emerge unscathed despite his car being riddled with bullets.

In a February 19 interview with the Portuguese newsagency Lusa, Mario Carrascalao, a high-ranking member of Gusmao’s coalition, suggested that the attack on the PM may have been staged, pointing out the improbability of anyone surviving an ambush on the stretch of road where it apparently took place.

Alkatiri has claimed that Fretilin has photographs of Xanana’s car following the attack with just two bullet holes. When the car was shown to the media it had 16 bullet holes. Following his surrender on April 29, the alleged leader of the ambush, Reinado’s deputy Gastao Salsinha, denied having fired any shots at Xanana.

Meanwhile, Fretilin has condemned the way in which Salsinha’s surrender was conducted, which not only involved an official public ceremony but was followed by a party in which Salsinha and his followers were drinking and dancing with government soldiers and police!

The ASDT-Fretilin call for an international inquiry into the February 11 events has suggested that Australia should not be involved due to Australia’s perceived inteference in East Timor’s affairs. Contributing to this perception is the lack of accountability of the ISF. Prior to the November Australian elections, the ALP called for the Australian forces to be brought under UN control. However, since winning power, the Rudd Labor government has maintained the ISF’s independent status.

From: International News, Green Left Weekly issue #750 14 May 2008.

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