The President's Man


What appear to be written orders from East Timor’s President Xanana Gusmão to rebel former soldier Alfredo Reinado confirm the close relationship the now escaped criminal who is wanted for murder and weapons offences had with the President.

The hand-written note, seen by New Matilda and available here (in Portuguese), on the letterhead of the President and signed by him, sets the tone of the relationship between the two.

‘Major Alfredo, Good Morning!’ It begins. ‘We have already combined with the Australian forces and you have to station yourselves in Aileu,’ writes the President, referring to the inland hill town an hour south of Dili where Alfredo did go with his rebel soldiers.

The letter continues ‘I am also going to write to Lieutenant [Gastão] Salsinha [the leader of the dismissed East Timorese soldiers who, unlike Reinado’s men, left their barracks without their weapons]to implement this order. abraços a todos [Embraces to all], Xanana’.

Gusmão’s office could not be contacted for comment on the document.

The letter is dated 29 May this year only three days after the first Australian forces had landed in Dili and seven days after Reinado had led his men in an attack against the East Timorese national army, the F-FDTL, in the hills to the east of the capital.

The letter confirms the close relationship between the President and the breakaway officer at the time — a relationship Reinado himself has never tried to hide. When David O’Shea from SBS TV’s Dateline program interviewed him in Dili just days before he was arrested on 26 July, Reinado said:

Until 22 May I [was]still bound to my General, Taur Matan Ruak [F-FDTL Commander]. After I [was]attacked and I am defending myself I think I should only follow orders from my Supreme Commander, the President. Until today, anywhere I go, I always notice him and I always take order from him. Whatever I am going to do, whatever order is being [given], as long as it is clarified and justified, I’ll do it.

Reinado also revealed that he had been in close contact with the President from 14 May, before the violence started. The exchange was as follows:

‘On 14 May on the Sunday I heard that you met with the President,’ says O’Shea.

‘Yes’ replies Reinado.

‘What did you discus then?’

‘I’m going to tell him why I left Dili. Because as the Supreme Commander he has to call me to ask me that. Why I left Dili on 3 May. I am going there to explain why I left Dili,’ says Reinado, referring to the day he left the army barracks in Dili with 20 of his men and two ute-loads of weapons and ammunition.

‘And [Gusmão] accepted your explanation?’ asks O’Shea. ‘Of course,’ replies Reinado.

When I interviewed Reinado on 11 June he was still in the hill town of Maubisse. He was there with his heavily armed men and eight Australian SAS guards. He said the guards were there for his security, but Head of the Australian forces, Brigadier Mick Slater, said the detachment was there to monitor him.

Reinado was his usual arrogant self loudly proclaiming that he was fighting for the justice of his people and referring to so-called ‘atrocities’ by the F-FDTL, which he greatly exaggerated. When pressed on his plans to disarm, he grinned and told me to talk to the President about that. He proclaimed he was not a rebel and that he was still a member of the army and had a right to carry weapons as he was still under the orders of the Supreme Commander of the armed forces, the President Xanana Gusmão.

The circumstances of Reinado’s arrest also require examination. I was in Dili that day, 26 July, and the incident started in the late morning. Reinado claimed that he had been offered the use of a house by the President himself. The house was situated directly across the road from the main gate of the Australian military base at Dili’s heliport in the suburb of Bairo Pite. As he was moving in, the Portuguese police (GNR), acted on a tip they had received, and came and searched the house. They found nine handguns, thousands of rounds of ammunition and grenades.

The day before had been the well publicised deadline for the handing in of weapons, and Reinado and his men were clearly in violation of that. The GNR wanted to arrest him. The Australian Federal Police were soon at the scene as well as several Australian armoured personnel carriers. It was a stand-off that lasted all day with the local and Portuguese press outside, and Reinado occasionally sauntering on to the verandah and issuing statements such as ‘I am a free man in a free country,’ much to the amusement of reporters.

(Meanwhile, at the President’s office across town, a series of meetings were being held between officials and military and police representatives. No press access was allowed.)

Finally, after dark, the press were told to leave, the Portuguese police loaded the weapons in a vehicle and the Australian army moved across the road and cordoned off the house. I waited in the dark and filmed as the Australians led Reinado’s men out, one by one, bound in plastic cuffs, and photographed them before marching them across the road to their base.

However, the Australians must have led Reinado out the back, as he was not with his men.

The sequence of the day’s events and the way the Australians actively tried to play down the event, gave me the impression that they had only reluctantly arrested Reinado and his men, and that they had been forced to by the GNR’s discovery of the weapons. The crisis meetings at the President’s office also suggested Gusmão’s close involvement in the case.

The fact that Reinado was not arrested earlier raised many questions among observers in Dili. Why, people were asking, was this man who was filmed shooting at the army, and even declaring on film that he had ‘got one,’ still remaining free? As one member of the UN investigation team said, ‘this guy has some serious political top cover.’

The links between Reinado and the President are even more relevant now, following his ‘escape’ from Dili’s Becora prison last week, when he and 56 others simply walked out the door. He has since recorded a half-hour interview with local Timorese television. Those who watched it placed the interview as having taken place at Daralau, in the hills above Dili. Incidentally, the President’s house is also in the hills above Dili.

It is inconceivable that the Australian military and Federal Police cannot place the backdrop to the interview as so many people in Dili have and locate and arrest Reinado.

But perhaps that is not a high priority. Perhaps they are taking the position of the President’s Australian-born wife, Kirsty Sword Gusmão, who told ABC Radio this week that Reinado ‘has been portrayed somewhat incorrectly in the Australian media as being a renegade, a rebel.’ She added that ‘when he defected from the military police, it was a protest action against what he saw as terrible violations committed by our armed forces.’

There is still little evidence that the armed forces committed violations. Claims of massacres and mass graves have never been backed up with facts, and appear to be politically motivated allegations designed to discredit the F-FDTL.

One of the most prominent opposition figures to repeatedly accuse the F-FDTL of massacres is Fernando De Araujo from the Democratic Party. When I interviewed him for Dateline in August he told me that, even though former Prime Minister Mari­ Alkatiri had resigned, the ‘plan’ had failed: ‘My plan was to have a transitional government that the President controls and in six months have a general election,’ he said.

It is similar to what Alfredo Reinado is now calling for, and from what one can divine from the supporters of East Timor’s now famously silent President, it is what he is positioning himself for as well.

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.