Who's Really Lighting the Fires?


Dili is a place of too many fires. Each year, during the dry season, the city is ringed by flames as people burn off in the nearby hills. With no rubbish collection to speak of, every morning the smell of burning plastic fills the air. On every block there is a burned-out building, and the names of the people who once lived there are chalked on the roofless walls as a sign that they intend to return and rebuild, one day. Young men play guitars on the rooftops of ruins, and hang out chatting on verandas still black from the fires of 1999.

And now the city burns again. The guitar players, who once idled in the shade with their t-shirts tucked up around their shoulders to escape the heat, have been replaced with young men wielding rocks, lighters and machetes, with their t-shirts wrapped around their heads to disguise their faces.

No one thought it would get this bad, including Prime Minister Mari­ Alkatiri. He says he is surprised that things reached this point, and describes the current situation as the result of ‘very complex things working together’.

Alex Tilman grew up in East Timor and was in Dili just before the first demonstrations in March. ‘East Timor is a very young country with very young institutions. People here are still learning how to live in a democracy, how to live within the rule of law,’ he says.

While there is a constant, low, background level of tension in the country, it took the breakdown of relations within and between East Timor’s army and police force to trigger the current crisis. Tilman explains that:

A lot of people in Timor have old scores to settle. You always hear of groups clashing with each other here and there, and sometimes they can get violent if the security forces or the police don’t intervene. The police and the army are still in their infancy and I think a lot of this could have been avoided if the UN presence was maintained.

With no police to curb the violence, ‘one small thing can spiral out of control’.

While Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer spent the weekend offering advice to East Timor’s political leaders about how to stabilise their country, last year Australia ignored East Timorese Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who both called for the continued presence of UN peacekeeping troops. Instead, Australia backed the US on the UN Security Council (link: http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2005/s1313641.htm) which voted against extending the peacekeeping mission. The last Australian soldiers pulled out in June last year.

The Australian media has been quick to paint East Timor as a ‘failed state’ pulled apart by ‘ethnic violence’. Prime Minister John Howard’s early comment that East Timor had been ‘badly governed’ set the tone of public debate, and the media coverage that followed has fairly consistently put forward the idea that the removal of Prime Minister Mari­ Alkatiri is the only solution to the crisis.

Alex Tilman, an active member of Alkatiri’s political Party, FRETILIN, says the coverage has been ‘very patronising’:

I think that Australian media, to some extent, are ignorant of East Timorese politics. They probably know what’s on the surface but they don’t bother to go deeper. They all give the same individuals as their sources but they don’t see what’s behind all this.

Dr Bob Boughton is one of a group of academics from the University of New England so concerned about the media coverage of East Timor that they put out a press release [link: http://www.une.edu.au/news/archives/000513.html ] warning that reports blaming the FRETILIN Government for the violent unrest in East Timor could in fact be contributing to that unrest.

By giving air to just one side in the dispute, he says, the Australian media is giving credibility to those who would use violence as a political tool:

Because of the very high rate of illiteracy, and the lack of a developed media and communications system, rumour is rife in Dili. The Australian media stories have become a source of misinformed speculation, encouraging people to blame the elected Government for the problems of recent weeks.

Rumours hang thicker in the air than the humidity in East Timor, and they can become self-fulfilling prophesies, stirring up the memories of past trauma and fuelling panic until they finally precipitate into reality.

In this case, there are widespread suspicions that at least some of the rumour mongering has been a deliberate attempt to further inflame the violence. In a strange parallel with the Cronulla riots, sms has played a part as text messages circulated exaggerating the number of dead, or warning that a civil war was about to begin.

East Timor’s rumour mill is easily exploited, either by crime gangs who can plunder amid the chaos or by the Government’s political opponents. Sociologist and East Timor expert Dr Helen Hill says:

Put around rumours of how many people were killed, and what’s happening in other parts of the countryside, and you’ve got no way of knowing if it’s true or not. That’s what happened this time, you’ve got a concerted effort to use misinformation. Whoever is winding up those young men with the machetes who are rampaging around in the name of the east and west [regions of East Timor], it’s tapping into a deep seated rivalry.

But it would be a mistake to label this long-standing rivalry an ‘ethnic clash’, or to talk of ‘deep-seated tension between different ethnic groups’, as many media reports have done, says Dr Hill. There was rivalry between east and west during the Indonesian occupation but ‘it was really about who did most during the war,’ she says.

Regional rivalries alone cannot explain the current violence. ‘It’s artificially constructed and laid upon people by some dubious forces behind the scenes,’ says Dr Hill.

Prime Minister Alkatiri, Alexander Downer, and Brigadier Mick Slater (Commander of the Joint Task Force in East Timor) have all hinted at the presence of third parties ‘orchestrating’ the fighting, but no one has enough evidence to name names.

However artificial or constructed, cycles of violence are surprisingly easy to create but very difficult to end. But Dili is not Gaza, and Alex Tilman says there is reason to believe that the East Timorese people will pull together again:

We are a small country with strong family values whether from east or west, everyone is linked to everyone else by families.That has resolved many issues in the past. All the people after living with many years of violence know the consequences of armed conflict. They know it would put one family member against another and that’s the last thing that East Timorese people want.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.