Rumour and reality in East Timor


When I first arrived in East Timor two years ago, to take up a position with the NGO Internews, I was plunged straight into a series of security briefings. It was 16 May, four days before the anniversary of independence, and ‘sources’ in the US Embassy were expecting violent protests. I sat through a two-hour staff meeting in which my boss passed on the embassy’s advice to celebrate Timor’s first birthday by staying at home, avoiding demonstrations, and above all, steering clear of any events involving the prime minister, who was considered a potential target.

When 20 May arrived, I experienced nothing more dangerous than a dose of heatstroke. There were no signs of the busloads of rock-toting rebels I had been warned about. This was the beginning of my education in the difference between rumour and reality in Timor.

Prime Minister of Timor-Leste Mari Alkatiri

Prime Minister of Timor-Leste Mari Alkatiri

Two years later, Dili is once again buzzing with rumours of people plotting to ‘bring down’ the government. But this time the protests are real, and the protestors have the church on their side, a powerful force in a country with an estimated 96 per cent Catholic population.

In February this year the government floated a plan for religious education to be optional rather than compulsory in the primary school curriculum. There was immediate outcry from church leaders, and it didn’t take long for opposition parties to jump on the bandwagon.

In February the few NGO workers and public servants who have internet access were printing out the latest emails about the government’s plan and bringing them to lunch. Email lists were dominated by arguments over the Catholic Church’s role in the independence movement. Meals of rice and tempeh were accompanied by heated discussions about the separation of church and state.

Over two months the widespread public debate evolved into a tense confrontation between the church and Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. In late April, Church leaders demanded that the prime minister resign, and mobilised thousands of people to demonstrate in Dili under banners reading ‘end the dictatorship.’

A week-long stand-off ensued. The president of the ruling party, Fretilin, condemned ‘the profoundly political and pre-insurrectional demonstration organised by the church hierarchy’, and church leaders refused to participate in dialogue to resolve the issue.

The protests finally came to an end when both parties signed a ‘joint declaration’ to end the conflict on 7 May, although it was unclear whether the government had actually agreed to any of the church’s requests.

During the protests, President Xanana Gusmao and members of civil society spoke out against the church’s demand for Alkatiri’s resignation, and an association of former political prisoners wrote an open letter to the church, stating that such demands were ‘unconstitutional’. One of the authors, Virgilio Guterres, says that while he believes the church was genuinely concerned about the issue of religious education, ‘it is impossible to deny that the final taste of this religious move was very political.’ Guterres spent two years in prison with Xanana Gusmao, and is now the chairman of the public broadcasting service.

‘I believe many of the demonstrators were not well informed some were manipulated’ says Guterres. Most of the demonstrators were told that the protest was about religion, but only the organisers knew of the demand to remove the prime minister, he says.

Jose Luis, executive director of the respected human rights group Perkumpulan Hak says the church ‘engineered’ the protests by instructing Catholic schools and parish priests to bring their students and congregations to the protests.

For outside observers, the transformation of a minor disagreement over the school curriculum into a call for the prime minister to resign is perplexing. Media reports have ascribed support for the protests to public opposition to the recent agreement by the president and prime minister to set up a ‘truth and friendship’ commission with Indonesia, which will pave the way for pardoning the perpetrators of crimes against humanity committed in 1999. This may be true, although the organisers of protests on this issue during the Indonesian President’s visit to Timor last month have distanced themselves from the church’s actions.

Guterres says the original issue of religious education was ‘transformed into a political stepping-stone’ by Alkatiri’s opponents. This is echoed by Jose Luis, who says that even though he agrees with the church’s opposition to impunity for Indonesian war criminals, he did not support the protests because the demand to replace Prime Minister Alkatiri, who is Muslim, ‘smells of racism and sectarianism’.

This is not the first time the prime minister has been the target of protests “ his house was burned to the ground during the Dili riots in December 2002. To this day the true causes of the riots remain unclear. Some critics claim that Alkatiri’s ‘authoritarian’ personality has caused widespread public resentment. Jose Luis says this is unfair: ‘they don’t understand the cause of Mari Alkatiri’s stubbornness.’ He thinks Alkatiri’s strict approach is necessary to protect East Timor from being ‘carried away’ by the influence of powerful foreign interests.

This is a common refrain among Alkatiri supporters, who see him as the only politician capable of protecting Timor’s national interests. While they may criticise his leadership style, they tend to unite behind the prime minister the moment there is any hint of what they perceive as ‘foreign interference’.

And foreign interference is a concern in Timor. During the recent protests a local newspaper published a photograph showing US Ambassador Joseph Rees in the middle of the demonstration. Foreign Minister Ramos Horta summoned the ambassador to explain his position, and Rees quickly told local media that ‘the US supports everybody’s rights for freedom of expression. Accordingly, the US does not support or oppose the current demonstration in Timor-Leste.’

Meanwhile, while the country has been looking the other way, a new criminal code has been drafted which includes, among other things, three year jail terms for defamation, with higher sentences for criticism of public officials. In the past few years the Fretilin majority parliament has passed a range of laws curtailing some of Timor’s hard-won freedoms, including freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.

With elections on the way next year, it won’t be long until the prime minister’s true standing in the community is tested at the ballot box, and it is quite likely that his party, Fretilin, will be returned for another term. Well-informed, unsensationalist public scrutiny is Timor’s best guarantee that a Fretilin government won’t confuse the ‘best interests of the nation’ with the ‘best interests of the ruling party’. Sadly, as the latest round of protests has illustrated, this is precisely the kind of scrutiny that is most lacking in East Timor.

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