11 February, 2008

Timor-Leste in Crisis

Timor-Leste (better known perhaps as East Timor) has had a pretty bad time of it over the last number of years. It endured a long and brutal occupation by Indonesian forces, who showed what good losers they were by smashing the place up when they withdrew. After independence, the country's political scene was paralysed by the mutual hostility of its president and prime minister. President Xanana Gusmao had been the leader of the military struggle against Indonesia, while Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, head of the FRETILIN party, had led the political side of the freedom movement. The destruction of the country's infrastructure and the legacy of Indonesia's thuggish rule combined with the country's political paralysis to make nation-building extremely problematic.

These issues overlaid tensions within Timor-Leste's armed forces. The members of this organisation were largely sympathetic to President Gusmao, as he had led them in the war against the occupiers, but the army had its own internal tensions, between people from the west of the country and the east, with the easterners seen as being preferred for promotions by Prime Minister Alkatiri's government. In 2006, these tensions escalated into a strike by soldiers who felt they were being unfairly treated; when Alkatiri attempted to sack the striking soldiers, they mutinied and smashed up the capital until Australian troops were deployed there. After that, most of the mutineers gave up and accepted their sacking, but a core under Major Alfredo Reinado refused to surrender and decamped to remote areas in the west of the country. Reinado was indicted for murders committed during the unrest, and it is possible that fear of prosecution was a major factor driving him to remain at large.

Timor-Leste's political troubles seemed to have been resolved by last year's elections. Nobel Laureate Jose Ramos-Horta became president, while Gusmao took the more powerful job of prime minister, leading a coalition government that relegated Alkatiri's FRETILIN to the opposition. Ramos-Horta and Gusmao are political allies, and their time in office has not been largely harmonious. What is perhaps interesting is how this new political stability seemed unable to bring social stability, with Reinado and the rebels remaining at large and uncooperative.

Just how uncooperative the rebels were was illustrated today. The rebels descended on Dili in what seems to have been an attempt at either staging a coup or decapitating the government. Shots were fired at the residence of Prime Minister Gusmao, and the president was shot and critically wounded. Reinado himself was however killed in fighting outside the president's residence.

It's hard to know what will happen now. Maybe the death of Major Reinado will lead to his rebellion fizzling out, with his presence at the attack on Ramos-Horta indicating how paltry the rebel forces had become. Perhaps today's shocking events will prove to mark the end of Timor-Leste's chaotic years, with a new era of politics replacing the violent days of the past.

Some links:

East Timor declares emergency after president shot (Guardian)
Who are East Timor's rebel soldiers?(BBC)

Other Hunting Monsters posts on Timor-Leste

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