Too Many Men With Too Many Guns


It was late at night on Thursday 25 May when the flares illuminated the stained glass windows in the chapel where we were hiding. I was sheltering with 15 of my neighbours in Caicoli, one of Dili’s inner suburbs. The light made people’s faces glow, mainly in wonderment and a small glimmer of hope.

In the distance we could hear gunshots — an East Timorese policeman and soldier were trying to kill each other. All my neighbours wanted to know was when the Australian troops were arriving. Some prayed. Others were constantly on their mobiles. Some managed to sleep.

We had hidden in our houses during six hours of nearly contious shooting in nearby streets. Even President Xanana Gusmao’s office had been attacked.

‘If the Australian troops do not arrive soon, there will be a civil war,’ I announced on that night’s SBS News. At 12:43am Constancia, my close friend, had received a mobile phone call from her brother, Manuel Amaral, an East Timorese policeman who was holed up in Dili’s main police station. ‘The F-FDTL (East Timorese Defence Force) are shooting at us,’ he had said, ‘please make sure that my wife and daughters will be looked after.’

It was the last conversation Manuel would have with his sister he was one of the eight unarmed policemen accompanied by UN observers who were gunned down by a combined F-FDTL, police and civilian group a few hours later.

Did he foretell his own death — this policeman who lived in our housing block, who loved his children and who adored his Batak wife Ari, who had come from Jakarta to live with him in an independent East Timor?

Manuel had been an unusual ex-Indonesian policeman. I remember him sitting on our front porch, having long conversations with the Free Aceh Movement representative hiding in Dili, a man and a movement Manuel had helped when he had been stationed in Aceh.

The police force had been haemorrhaging for days. There was no longer a command structure. Police had been disarmed or had rebelled. They were joining, either physically or morally, the 591 Defence Force soldiers who had sparked the crisis by complaining of poor military leadership and discrimination.

When the F-FDTL realised what was happening, they called on 100 police, mainly from the East, to join them. There are twice as many police as military in East Timor. The majority of police are from the West. The remaining military and leaders are from the East. There were too many men and they had too many guns.

‘It’s the ones from the East who have the guns and we from the West only have rocks,’ was a refrain I kept hearing in the days of looting and burning that coincided with the peacekeepers beginning their operations on 26 May.

Two days after the attacks on the police station, I witnessed a gang of young people from the West trying to break into a convent where three men from the East, including a policeman, were sheltering. And a week later, a young student from Baucau whose relatives were F-FDTL was forced to flee as his house was burnt to the ground.

It seemed as if everyone had been struck by a fever whose main symptom was irrationality. I tried to find people from East or West who didn’t automatically support their compatriots from the East or West. It was a hard slog.

The F-FDTL didn’t help when it allegedly handed out 200 rifles (these were later accounted for and returned, according to sources). There were also allegations that the Police Armoury had been emptied of weapons to be used against people from the East, according to a couple of scared looking ex-policemen hiding out in the F-FDTL base in Metinaro (most of these weapons have neither been accounted for, nor returned).

Who had distributed the weapons to civilians? Who attacked the police station? Had the military been attacked first? Why were the military in the city in the first place? How many weapons could a police force policing a population of less than one million actually have?

Things were complicated. So-called ‘spontaneous’ events had been planned. There is credible evidence that renegade police coordinated lootings and transported Easterners living in Dili back to the East.

And there were questions about who in the leadership (political, military and police) had known what and when. And questions about the intelligence they had, and who provided it.

Members of the political opposition, the Partido Democratico (PD) and the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT), were deeply involved in organising the demonstrations against then Prime Minister Mari­ Alkatiri after the arrival of the peacekeepers. One high-profile member of PD told me quite openly that he had been with one of the ‘rebel’ leaders, Major Alfredo Reinado, during the past month. It was also revealed to me that rebel soldiers (the so-called ‘petitioners’), police officials and opposition members had daily telephone conversations. This was either clever political manoeuvring or a conspiracy, depending on your ideological barometer.

Alkatiri hinted that a coup had taken place. It was a neat justification for the actions of loyalist F-FDTL who would argue that, from April to May, they were upholding the Constitution. ‘They were just doing their job,’ according to Major Kogliati, a rare officer from the West who had not mutinied and whom I spoke to at the F-FDTL base in Tasi Tolu.

Some serious questions need to be asked of the UN, US and Australia about why they voted for the withdrawal of international peacekeepers last year, at a time when cracks in the East Timorese security forces had already appeared.

According to East Timorese observers, in 2003, F-FDTL officers from both East and West had been conspiring to organise a coup against Alkatiri. This had been interrupted by the petitioner movement. In the same year, the police force had divided into the Polisi Nationalista, a reform movement that tried to purge the force of those who had served with the Indonesian police and those who had worked with the previous Indonesian command structure.

Back in Dili in May and June 2006, the city’s rumour mill went into overdrive. Everyone had a story to tell. But facts remained murky.

There were two interesting coup theories: either the coup had been organised by Alkatiri in order to retain power; or Gusmao and then Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta were part of an Australian-US conspiracy.

Others just sighed. East Timor had so many serious internal problems leading to the crisis that mention of a coup was laughable.

At the end of May, there was no response to the crisis from the East Timorese leadership. I wondered if this was incompetence or deliberate. Gusmao was widely condemned for inflaming the East-West divisions but, in the end, everyone turned to him.

When Ramos-Horta hit the ground running, meeting everyone affected by the crisis, his popularity and power grew. But there were also dark mutterings from the Alkatiri camp that in the last six months Ramos-Horta had changed his tune on the oil and gas deal with Australia. He had moved significantly closer to Alexander Downer’s position. He could do deals, while Alkatiri remained arrogant (or was it resolute?).

Within six weeks, I saw Alkatiri go from ‘strong leader’ to ‘terrorista’. He tried to hang on, which was either admirable or foolhardy, depending on your politics. People may have admired him but he was no Nasser or Mossadegh. ‘Our leaders may be bad,’ a woman from the districts told me, ‘but Fretilin is still sacred.’ And the irony is that Fretilin would still win an election handsomely.

Alkatiri’s so-called death squad (commanded by Rai Los) seemed to be a beat-up and the chronology of its arming and movement is laughable if you have the slightest knowledge of the people and places mentioned although the figure of former Interior Minister Rogerio Lobato loomed like some kind of archetypal villain. But the fear was so real. And there were dissident members of Fretilin who feared for their lives.

In Dili, it felt like March and April 1999 all over again. NGO workers and members of PD moved from house to house at night, scared they would be assassinated. We had to meet in inconspicuous places and put them up in hotel rooms for the night. The next morning they would leave before breakfast, just in case someone spotted them.

After a few weeks this stopped but then the gunfire at night began.

For the last three nights I stayed in Caicoli, the gunfire grew closer. After the first night, my neighbour Senhor Constantino, a tough looking policeman who no longer had a job, told me he was ready to make another run for it. Other neighbours, who remarkably stayed put during May, June and July, told me that at night they hadn’t heard a thing as they were listening to music on the radio.

As for the rest of Dili, over 100,000 just couldn’t bear the tension and continued sleeping under tents in camps under the watchful eye of Australian soldiers.

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