EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Timor troubles: the way ahead
, March 1, 2008
What simmering troubles ultimately led to the failed assassination attempts on East Timor's president and prime minister? What national problems must the Dili government now address?The attempted assassination of East Timor's President, José Ramos Horta, and Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao, by the former army officer, Major Alfredo Reinado, shocked and appalled Australians who expected that a government elected democratically last July would be able to implement a program to address the major problems of peace, stability and development in the country.
In hindsight, the violence was a result of divisions which emerged under the former Fretilin regime but were not resolved by the election.
The origins of the recent events go back several years, before the collapse of law and order in May 2006 which led to the deployment of Australian and NZ peace-keepers."Petitioners"
As the International Crisis Group noted: "The immediate crisis started in January 2006, when soldiers submitted a petition to top government leaders alleging discrimination in the armed forces. The allegations were not new but were made in an atmosphere poisoned by political manipulation that caused the police and military to be divided internally and against each other.
"The interventions of then Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri and President Xanana Gusmao, who had radically different visions of where the country should be headed and mutually antagonistic power bases, often made things worse." (Resolving Timor-Leste's Crisis
, October 2006).
Major Reinado, former head of the military police, opposed the action of the former Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri, to endorse the sacking of some 600 soldiers, known as "the petitioners". The soldiers had protested to Gusmao against discrimination in the defence forces. Gusmao expressed sympathy for the "petitioners" - but did nothing.
When Alkatiri's Interior Minister armed a death squad to assassinate opposition and church leaders in 2006, and the army used its weapons against civilians, Major Reinado abandoned his position, and joined the "petitioners", who were living in the hills outside Dili.
After being arrested for his role in the troubles, Major Reinado subsequently walked out of the prison in Dili and, since that time, was both spokesman and leader of the "petitioners".
In March last year, Reinado was the subject of an attempt by Australia's SAS to hunt him down and capture him. However, he escaped.
After Fretilin was defeated in elections last June, there was an expectation that the new government, in which Xanana Gusmao was Prime Minister, would address the issues which the "petitioners" had raised.
Although talks took place between Reinado and Gusmao, who had responsibility for the army and police, the issues remained unresolved.
Subsequently, an acrimonious debate between Gusmao and Reinado took place in the columns of one of East Timor's newspapers, as to who was responsible for the stand-off.
Within East Timor, these tensions did not interfere with the functioning of the new democratically-elected government, which took office in August 2007.
Fretilin, now in opposition in Parliament, raised continuing objections to the international military presence, and particularly Australian troops whom Fretilin demanded withdraw from the country.
Clearly, something triggered the bizarre attempt by Major Reinado to seize or kill José Ramos Horta and Xanana Gusmao; but at the time of writing, the cause of these events remains unclear.
In the last few days, however, some additional facts have come to light. Apparently, José Ramos Horta had been involved in detailed negotiations with Major Reinado personally to solve the problem of "the petitioners". The terms of the deal which Horta offered Reinado was that "the petitioners" would lay down their arms and surrender, and, in exchange, Horta would give them an amnesty next May.
Horta apparently negotiated with Reinado with at least one other person present, so the account is probably true. It shows that Horta believed a deal could be made with Reinado, and that he alone could deliver it.
For reasons that are unclear, but which may go back to the attempt by Horta and Gusmao to have him arrested or killed last year, Reinado did not trust Horta and attempted to take him and Gusmao hostage. This probably tells us more about Reinado's state of mind than anything else.
Even those in East Timor who admired him were shocked by his attack on leaders of the democratically-elected government.
In the meantime, despite Reinado's shocking action, the Dili Government has moved to get on with the job of running the country.
One immediate consequence of the failed assassination attempt, and the death of Major Reinado in a gun-fight at the home of José Ramos Horta, is that Reinado is no longer a factor on the political scene.
However, the Gusmao government must still address the unresolved issues raised by the "petitioners" in 2005. Were this done, it would pave the way for a process of national reconciliation.
Another consequence of recent events arises from the severe gunshot injuries suffered by the President, José Ramos Horta, who is now in hospital in Darwin.Acting President
In his absence, the Speaker of East Timor's Parliament, Fernando "Lasama" de Araujo, becomes Acting President of East Timor.
Mr Araujo is President of the Democratic Party, and belongs to the new generation of Timorese leaders who grew up in East Timor during the Indonesian occupation.
He was a Timorese student leader studying in Indonesia, and was arrested after the Santa Cruz massacre in November 1991, when Indonesian troops killed about 300 young Timorese protesters in the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili.
Mr Araujo was alleged to have been the organiser of the protest which preceded the massacre. He served over six years in prison, alongside Xanana Gusmao.
The Democratic Party has a well-developed agenda for addressing the nation's social, economic, health and education problems.
His presence will undoubtedly help the government to address the problems East Timor faces.- Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.