Paul Toohey | August 22, 2008
A SECRET recording of the last meeting between East Timor’s President Jose Ramos Horta and rebel leader Alfredo Reinado reveals that the two men had run out of ways to end a stalemate that had held the country moribund for almost two years.
The recording, obtained by The Australian, was made by Reinado on January 13 on a small digital recorder hidden in his top pocket at a meeting in the western hilltop town of Maubisse. Just before Reinado died, he handed it to a friend for safekeeping.
Reinado was gunned down at almost point-blank range inside Ramos Horta’s villa on February 11, while the President survived after being shot twice, apparently by Reinado’s rebels. The rebels say Reinado told them he had a 6am appointment with Ramos Horta and point out they dawdled on the way to Dili, stopping in places to kill time to arrive at the appointed hour.
Although no one suggests Ramos Horta made the appointment, the January meeting reveals how frustrated he and senior government figures had become with Reinado. It is possible that Reinado, who was relying on Ramos Horta to solve his problems, lost patience and stormed Ramos Horta’s villa.
An alternative theory is that Reinado had been falsely informed the President wanted to see him and was set up for his death by powerbrokers who sought his elimination.
Ramos Horta had warned Reinado that if an agreement was not reached on that day, then “there are no more other opportunities. If the President of the republic has come and a solution is not found, then what other solution is there? These are my words.”
Four men attended the meeting: Ramos Horta, Economy and Development Minister Joao Goncalves, Reinado and Reinado’s second-in-command Gastao Salsinha, who is now in jail.
Waiting outside was Major Mike Stone of the Australian Defence Force, now assigned to Ramos Horta’s staff; and Reinado’s lawyer, Benevides Correia Barros.
The meeting was a failed final attempt to end a two-year impasse that plunged the country into civil strife after about 600 soldiers from western Timor deserted and fled to the hills, claiming the army leadership was favouring soldiers from the east for promotion. Reinado eventually joined the petitioners, but his case was different: the courts had issued an arrest warrant for him on murder charges, after he had engaged in a deadly firefight with the army in 2006.
Ramos Horta went to the meeting believing that the group acting as mediators between him and Reinado, the Movement for National Unity and Justice (MUNJ), had secured a commitment from the rebel to surrender weapons he had unlawfully seized from border police in early 2007.
Ramos Horta discovered that Reinado had made no such promise. The rebel argued he had shown good faith in 2006 by surrendering his weapons to then president Xanana Gusmao. He said Gusmao had promised that the surrender was just a formality intended to restore public faith and that he would get his weapons back. Reinado told Ramos Horta that Gusmao had betrayed him by not returning the weapons, and this led him to raid the border posts to obtain guns.
Ramos Horta regarded the surrender of weapons as essential for him to offer Reinado a guarantee of amnesty in the context of the murder charges.
“You told MUNJ you accepted the solution of compromise that I have presented,” the President said.
Reinado said: “I have the right, as military, to protect myself.”
Ramos Horta, angrily: “We have spoken of this many times, major.”
Reinado: “And I have never changed my position, Mr President.”
Ramos Horta reminded Reinado that he, not Reinado, was supreme commander of the army. “The command does some things wrong but there is in no country or any state which, after such efforts, would accept your attitude,” he said.
“Many opportunities have been given to you. Many opportunities. I have said many times already that during these months that good, positive behaviour will help to stabilise the situation.
“Many people don’t understand; many suspect that I would also support you from behind. I don’t. I only look to do dialogue and dialogue and dialogue. I try to look at the problems from each side.
“However, major Alfredo Reinado, the moment has come that we must go forward, meet each other, to bow to each other, because the reason is not 100 per cent on your side or 100 per cent on the side of the Government or FFDTL (the Timorese defence force). If you want to show the community that we can find solutions for the problem and show that only you are right, then there is no solution.”
The recording adds force to the argument that Reinado’s lover, Angelita Pires, who has been accused of being Reinado’s puppeteer, was not as influential as has been claimed. Pires was not at the meeting and Reinado’s stubbornness is clearly of his own making.
Reinado had earlier written to the President saying he was prepared to be placed under house arrest in Dili, with a New Zealand guard, while awaiting his trial in a military court. (Timor has no such court.) He no longer trusted Australian troops because he felt they were encroaching on his turf.
The President said it would be better if Reinado stayed out of Dili and that he would have to surrender to the authorities for house arrest while awaiting trial. But “that is only a formality”, he added. He said he would use “indirect pressure” to persuade the prosecutor-general to allow Reinado to remain free while awaiting trial.
However, Ramos Horta warned that he had no power over the courts, even though he had infuriated them by ignoring the warrants and issuing freedom-of-movement letters that ordered the security forces not to arrest Reinado. Ramos Horta said an amnesty law would be passed on May 20 that could lead to his freedom. But Reinado was aware the President had no legislative power and could guarantee no such outcome.
Salsinha insisted he and the petitioners were still serving members of the army. However, Salsinha and his men had been sacked in early 2006 and Ramos Horta made it clear that the army’s head, Brigadier General Taur Matan Ruak, did not want them back. “Taur says we will not accept them to come back because we already sacked them,” the President told the rebels. He said he would return to Dili and try to persuade Matan Ruak that the soldiers could reapply to join the army or be paid out to go away.
Reinado retorted that all serving members of the military – not just the rebels – should be put through a triaging process to reapply for the military and to prove their worth. He challenged serving soldiers to a physical test to see who was better.
Ramos Horta was contemptuous of Salsinha and did not address him by his rank.
He took a different view of Reinado, regarding him as a serving officer who needed to face justice.
In a strange aside, the President said to Reinado: “While we are in this process, I ask yourselves to please keep an eye. I heard that from the border the Indonesians are bringing weapons in.”
Reinado agreed this was the case and asked the President to give him the authority to raise a battalion to protect the border. Ramos Horta did not respond.
The meeting ended after one more attempt by Ramos Horta to persuade Reinado to surrender his weapons. “No, Mr President,” Reinado responded. “It’s like this. I also have the right to protect myself.”
Ramos Horta made a half-hearted suggestion that they meet again in a few days, but no date was set. It appears as though Ramos Horta had given up on Reinado. The two men never saw each other again.
Goncalves told a reporter after the shootings that Reinado had agreed to surrender and submit to justice on January 13. “He agreed. A deal was essentially done,” Goncalves was reported as saying. That clearly was not the case.
Three days after the meeting, Leon de Riedmatten from the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue wrote to Reinado on behalf of Ramos Horta, informing him that the military was reluctant to reintegrate the petitioners into the army but reassuring him that he would remain free and that no military operation would be conducted against him.
Gusmao, the East Timorese army, the Australian-led International Stabilisation Force and the courts had all tired of Reinado and regarded him as a common criminal.
Ramos Horta, the Nobel peace laureate, was the only one who saw hope. The President was the only one Reinado would listen to. But after two years of Reinado demanding justice but refusing to face the courts, it is clear that Ramos Horta, too, was running out of patience.
De Riedmatten told Reinado the President had to travel overseas in January and would not be able to meet him that month. He promised that Ramos Horta would meet him again “before the middle of February”. However, the President made further plans to travel overseas in mid-February and again cancelled the meeting with Reinado.
On February 6, Australian troops entered Reinado’s hilltop zone, which led to a three-hour stand-off, with the rebels firing shots in the air. It is possible that Reinado thought he was close to being arrested and that his one hope in the world, Ramos Horta, had left him for dead.