Sep 4, 2008
By Simon Roughneen
DILI – East Timor’s post-independence politics have confounded outside
observers, and for the most part the Timorese themselves. Simultaneously
transparent and opaque, what was thought to be a mono-cultural,
impoverished, Western-backed, state-building poster-child has morphed
into a divided half-island, with obscure tribal-linguistic rivalries once
considered dormant since stirred by political rivalries and manifested in
The Timorese political elite remain at odds along familiar regime lines,
demarcations so old that these rivalries were, broadly speaking,
established when Richard Nixon was still in the White House and more
sharply honed in the 1980s – when soap opera addicts spent months
wondering who shot J R Ewing, the fictional Texan oil mogul in
But East Timor may now have its own Watergate, or at least a watershed
political moment depending on which version of the events of February 11
finally emerges as the truth. That day, Dili’s usual idyllic dawn was
shattered by shots ringing out along the seaside valleys just a few miles
east of the city, close to the white sand beaches favored by Timor’s
affluent expatriate community.
In what was regarded as either failed assassination attempts on President
Jose Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, or perhaps instead a
meeting-gone-awry between Ramos-Horta and former Timorese soldier Alfredo
Reinado, the shoot-outs put the president in the hospital for two months
and left rebel leader-cum-assassin Reinado in an early grave.
Reinado led the Petitioners, a group of disenchanted soldiers from the
western half of the country who felt discriminated against by army top
brass from the country’s eastern regions. Prior to being dismissed from
the armed services, he was pivotal in a chain of violent events in 2006
that led to over 100,000 Timorese being driven from their homes and the
resignation of then-prime minister Mari Alkatiri. The army split, the
police force disintegrated and Reinado took to the hills.
Some of Reinado’s colleagues that fateful February morning have offered
confusing and contradictory versions of what led up to the incident and
what finally happened when their flamboyant front man died. Ramos-Horta
himself has revised his initial recollection – that one of the rebels,
Marcel Caetano, fired the bullets that almost killed him – after visiting
the imprisoned would-be assassin in Dili’s Becora jailhouse.
So who really shot Ramos-Horta and why? Considering the political
machinations that preceded the shootings, it now seems unlikely it was
Reinado who pulled the trigger. Ramos-Horta had repeatedly offered olive
branches to the flashy rent-a-quote rebel, who had been dismissed by the
Australian-led international forces and the ruling Parliamentary Majority
Alliance (AMP) coalition headed by Ramos-Horta’s ally Gusmao, as a de
facto criminal with no political status.
Another rumor doing the rounds was that, behind the scenes, Ramos-Horta
had given up on the recalcitrant fugitive and that Reinado had set out in
a huff for Dili to confront the president. That would have been suicidal
unless it was followed by a coup attempt, hence the apparent simultaneous
hit on Gusmao led by Gastinho Salsinha, Reinado’s deputy. However, that
too now seems unlikely given the lack of men and hardware at Reinado’s
disposal that morning.
In any case, Ramos-Horta survived, Reinado died, and the political
fallout was until now minimal. That was until The Australian newspaper
revealed it had reviewed the top-secret report drafted by Muhumad Nurul
Islam, Timor’s leading forensic pathologist, saying it indicated that
Reinado and his sidekick Leopoldinho Exposto were shot at close or
point-blank range in an execution style that does not tally with the
prevailing shoot-out version of events – namely, that Reinado was taken
out at a range of 10 meters or so by one of Ramos-Horta’s snipers.
Nurul reported that Reinado had blackening and burning around each of his
four bullet wounds and said he had been shot with a high-velocity rifle
“at close range”. Nurul added that Exposto was shot squarely in
the back of his head, also at close range. David Ranson from the Victoria
Institute of Forensics was quoted by The Australian saying that the
blackening and burning mentioned in Nurul’s report only appears when a
gun is fired at almost point-blank range.
Ramos-Horta later raged in a Timorese newspaper against The Australian
newspaper and the forensic scientists that the newspaper consulted.
Attorney General Longinus Montero disputed The Australian version of
events, telling reporters in Dili that “It’s not right, that
information isn’t right. The case is still under investigation.” He
added that the results could not yet be made public.
Apart from the apparent contradictions, much of what apparently
transpired on February 11 seems strange. Most glaring was why, with
gunfire ringing around his house, Ramos-Horta returned home, or more to
the point, why his security detail let him do so. Much has been made of
the delay in the army and police response to the shooting, and it appears
that Reinado’s body was moved around the crime scene, and that police
present even answered his mobile phone as he lay dead.
Confusion and conspiracy
Some of Timor’s other political grandees appear set to capitalize on
the confusion. Mario Carrascalao, a key member of the ruling coalition,
said on August 17 that “we still don’t know what happened”.
“For me, all the stories that have been told here – I don’t trust
them,” he said. He called for the immediate release of the
prosecutor-general’s report into the attacks and the establishment of an
independent inquiry into “what happened and more importantly why it
Prime Minister Gusmao has so far resisted calls for any independent
inquiry. Before the February shootings, Ramos-Horta’s house stood alone
at the corner of the route heading uphill from Dili and east to Timor’s
second city Baucau, no more than a few feet from the roadside, and with
some of the gardens easily visible from inside cars and trucks winding
uphill to breathtaking views of the Wetar Strait.
The standard version of events, summed up by James Dunn in a paper
written for the Australian Human rights Council, took a best-case view
that Reinado did not actually intend to kill Ramos-Horta during the
fateful encounter: “Almost certainly it was a botched attempt by the
rebel leader, Alfredo Reinado, to corner the president and seek further
assurances that the proposed surrender conditions, culminating in his
pardon, would in fact be carried out.”
The report continued: “The plan went tragically wrong because
Reinado’s target was not there. The President was not at home, but out on
a very early beach walk. Reinado’s men disarmed the guards and occupied
the residence grounds, but two soldiers turned up unexpectedly and shot
Reinado and one of his men at what was apparently point blank range.
Hearing the shooting, Ramos-Horta hurried back to the residence where he
was shot by one of Reinado’s men, a rebel enraged at the killing of their
leader. It is likely that this angry reaction caused another rebel party
to fire on Prime Minister Xanana some time later.”
Still, the rumor mill went into overdrive after the shootings. Questions
have arisen about the provenance of a US$700,000 bank account in
Australia that Reinado allegedly had access to. Other sketchy details
surround the links between the rebels and Joao Tavares, who was once
described by the UN as the top militia commander in East Timor in 1999.
Three rebels were arrested in April in Indonesia-ruled West Timor while
staying at his personal residence.
Reinado had a fake Indonesian identification on his person when shot and,
bizarrely, Ramos-Horta later railed against Desi Anwar, a well-known
Indonesian broadcast journalist who interviewed the fugitive in Indonesia
in 2007, for facilitating Reinado’s clandestine cross-border travels. In
January, an obscure group linked to Reinado known as the Movement for
National Unity and Justice (MUNJ) withdrew from moribund talks between
the government and the rebels, a failure that Ramos-Horta and Gusmao
blamed on Reinado’s girlfriend, Angie Pires.
Depending on which rebel account you believe, however, MUNJ
representatives were with Reinado right up to February 10, allegedly
supplying the vehicles that took the rebels to the capital’s outskirts
the day of the reputed assassination attempt.
Another notable and as-yet-unexplained detail emerged from a contact
number found on the dead Reinado’s mobile phone under the name
“Hercul”. That’s led some to believe the Jakarta-based,
Timor-born Hercules Rozario Marca was in contact with Reinado prior to
the events at Ramos-Horta’s residence. Weeks later two of the rebels
linked to Reinado were arrested at Marca’s home.
Marca visited Dili in late January and met with Reinado, according to
Gusmao’s AMP coalition partner and former East Timor governor Mario
Carrascalao. During his January visit, Marca also reportedly discussed
investment opportunities with various Timorese officials, including both
Ramos-Horta and Gusmao, according to the Sun Herald.
With government approval, Marca is now primed to invest in a new swimming
pool along Dili’s docklands, across from the Parliament House, a
remarkable rehabilitation for a man that once allegedly provided muscle
to Jakarta’s attempts to cow East Timor’s independence activists. He has
joined other former Jakarta businessmen once linked to Indonesian
strongman Suharto who are now cutting government-brokered business deals
in Dili, including one for a new casino.
Some say it is no coincidence that those deals were completed around the
time an Indonesian-Timorese Commission fudged issues of justice and
accountability for crimes committed during Jakarta’s brutal
quarter-century occupation of the former Portuguese colony, to the
chagrin of many Timorese.
The Commission on Truth and Friendship (CTF) was established in 2005 by
the Timorese and Indonesian governments to examine violence perpetrated
by Jakarta’s troops and its Timorese proxies during the 1999 violence
that marred the vote for independence from Indonesia.
However, the CTF had no powers to prosecute, prompting criticism that it
served to whitewash atrocities. Its final report, issued on July 15,
concluded that Indonesia also had responsibility for gross human rights
violations, such as murder, rape, torture, illegal detention and forced
mass deportations, that were committed by militias with the support and
participation of Indonesian institutions and their members.
While Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono expressed his
“deepest regret” for the victims, he quickly dismissed the
notion that those responsible should be brought to justice.
After the April shooting, before being released from hospital,
Ramos-Horta said Indonesian officers should “come clean” and
acknowledge their responsibility for 1999 violence, and that both
countries would need to read the commission’s report calmly and “see
whether we need to take further steps to address the events of
Earlier, the apparently traumatized Ramos-Horta had visions of a crowd
trying to suffocate him, and separately he alleged Indonesian involvement
in the assassination attempt on his life. Yudhoyono rebuked that claim,
and by the time the CTF report came out Ramos-Horta had completely
changed his tune, saying that the victims’ legacy would be used to build
stronger links between the two countries and that Timor would not be
seeking an international tribunal to try those responsible. He was joined
by Gusmao in declaring, “We are determined to bring a closure to a
chapter of our recent past.”
Dormant lightning rod
Reinado’s cult-like status led some to fear he could be seen as a
martyr and his death become a lightening rod for political discontent. An
Australian-led attempt to apprehend him at his southern redoubt in Same
in 2007 led to riots in Dili, as his supporters torched buildings and
cars. But Reinado’s cause seemed to die with its leader, at least in the
public eye, although the east-west regional divide inside the Timorese
army that prompted Reinado to rebel in the first place remains unsolved.
With illiteracy rates at 60% and child malnutrition 40%, many people are
wondering when Timor’s some $3 billion in oil revenues, accrued since the
establishment of a national petroleum fund in 2005, will start to filter
down to the impoverished grassroots. East Timor is listed by the UN as
the poorest country per capita in the Asia-Pacific region. More political
strife means that potentially lucrative tourism from Australia seems
unlikely to take off anytime soon, despite Timor being a closer, cleaner
and relatively untouched alternative to Bali, a line Gusmao peddled while
on an official visit to Australia last week.
Instead, soaring food and fuel prices are making life even harder for
Timor’s poor. An official move to give 100,000 hectares of land to the
production of bio-fuel crops in a furtive deal with the Indonesian
company GT Leste Biotech irked many, not least because it was brokered in
January but did not become public until June. That controversial deal
with the island state’s former occupier was followed by the arrest of
around 60 students protesting a decision to buy cars for each of the
Timor government’s 65 MPs.
The run of government slip-ups only adds to the growing divide between
East Timor’s politicians and its people, particularly among the restless
and unemployed youth. How more contradictory versions of Ramos-Horta’s
shooting will affect perceptions remains to be seen and reactions will be
hard to predict.
Timor has confounded outside observers since independence, with few
anticipating the 2006 security meltdown, for example, and others
following up with doomsday predictions for the 2007 elections, which in
actuality passed off peacefully. What is clear, however, is that since
Reinado’s demise and the dissolution of his rebellion, the 100,000
internally displaced people have started to return home.
Yet Timor’s political top brass have seen their popularity steadily
decline in the years since independence. Ramos-Horta attributed Gusmao’s
disappointing showing in the 2007 parliamentary elections as due to the
former fighters “losing touch with the people”. FRETILIN, the
socialists now in opposition and who were at odds with Gusmao since the
early days of Indonesian occupation, saw their vote halved in the same
Months before the disputed shoot-out, Ramos-Horta did much better in
securing around 70% of the votes in the second presidential poll, albeit
in a straight run-off against a weak FRETILIN candidate. Now military
roadblocks mark the road on both sides of the once-popular president’s
home, where before the February shootout the Nobel Peace Prize laureate
often went for his early morning jog greeting fishermen and bar owners
with an easy and secure familiarity.
Simon Roughneen is a roving freelance journalist. He has
reported from Africa, Southeast Asia the Middle East and Pakistan.