Meddling in East Timor


If accurate, recent revelations by John Martinkus about East Timorese President Xanana Gusmao are disturbing but not altogether unexpected.

While Abilio Mesquita’s allegations that Gusmao was involved in des tabilising Dili may be no more accurate than those of Vicente ‘Rai Los’ da Conceicao (in Liz Jackson’s story on ABC TV’s Four Corners) that former Prime Minister Mari­ Alkatiri was arming civilians, they illustrate the depth to which hostility and distrust among political leaders has fallen, the way the Australian media has fuelled the conflict, and the very detrimental impact that the crisis has had on the country.

East Timor ‘s initial success at establishing local institutions relied on the ability of its three main leaders, Gusmao, Alkatiri and current Prime Minister José Ramos Horta, to work together. While there are political differences between them, policy-wise they are minor, quite legitimate in a democracy, and smaller than the political differences, say, between John Howard and Australia’s Labor State Premiers.

Gusmao, Alkatiri and Ramos Horta all have particular abilities their country needs at this stage in its development Ramos Horta has exemplary diplomatic skills; Alkatiri a deep knowledge of economic development, policymaking and financial negotiation; and Gusmao a legendary ability to communicate with the people and mobilise them.

Recall the debate between Australia and East Timor over their maritime boundaries. Each of these three leaders fell foul of Australian authorities during that period Gusmao by describing Australia as ‘a country which steals from us then organises conferences regarding transparency and anti-corruption;’ Ramos Horta using the words ‘bullying’ and ‘blackmail’ to describe Australia’s actions; and Alkatiri accusing Australia of an ‘unfriendly act’ when it withdrew from the maritime boundary mechanisms in the World Court and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Yet all three, realising the importance of working together, were able to reach a ‘creative solution’ to the problem.

They didn’t win all they could have through international law, but it was a creditable achievement far more favourable to East Timor than the Australian Parliament wanted. It was further consolidated by Alkatiri’s establishment of the Petroleum Fund in July 2005 to ensure that all profits are invested in infrastructure for the development of the country.

The pressure from Australians over the Timor Sea could have split the three Timorese leaders, instead it brought them together, and the majority of the population behind them.

There were, however, other events in Timor’s short history that threatened their relationship, and the country’s stability. The December 2002 riots, during which shadowy elements, hiding behind the cover of a student demonstration, looted and burnt Dili causing two deaths, served as a wake-up call to Gusmao and Alkatiri.

Australian troops driving their tanks onto a reef in East Timor. Photo from Timor-Online

Another event which could have threatened their relationship was the demonstration by elements of the Catholic Church in March 2005. Starting as a protest against religious education being voluntary, rather than compulsory, it was immediately supported by the opposition Parties and escalated into a call for the dismissal of the Government by large crowds of people demonstrating in the streets for weeks. However, the three political leaders and supporters of the Constitution remained united and eventually the issue was resolved through negotiation and dialogue.

But dangerous precedents were set. One was the involvement of foreign embassies, much to the disgust of Ramos Horta. The other was that respected figures saw it as legitimate to change a government by mobilising people in the streets, rather than through elections.

The Australian media have always wanted to emphasise the differences between Gusmao and Alkatiri one was a saint, the other the devil. In reality both are ordinary but talented East Timorese trying to do their best for their country under extremely difficult circumstances. (Sadly, several Australian journalists have also fallen for the tactics of renegade soldier Alfredo Reinado, helping to turn him into some sort of folk hero, despite his admissions of guilt.)

It is well known Gusmao sent a copy of Liz Jackson’s Four Corners program to Alkatiri demanding his resignation. This film is widely ridiculed in East Timor as it was shot in the garden of a leading opposition politician [Please note correction here]. The legitimacy of East Timor’s leaders has been undermined by these events and Gusmao and Ramos Horta are now reluctant to make public statements.

If there is any element of truth in John Martinkus’s article, and Gusmao was involved in destabilising Alkatiri’s Prime Ministership, it is unlikely he did so on his own and the issue of outside involvement becomes a key question.

Meanwhile, the unrest continues in East Timor and people all over the country are calling for reconciliation at the highest levels to bring about peace in the streets. There were hopes that Kofi Annan’s appointment of Antonio Mascarenhas Monteiro, as head of the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT), would provide an opportunity for this to begin.

As a former President of Cape Verde, the most democratic and economically successful country to emerge from Portugal’s former colonies, he would be senior enough to command the respect of the East Timorese leaders. He has also experienced some of the very same problems with development policies that they are now facing.

However, after accepting the post on 21 September in New York, Mascarenhas Monteiro found there were rumblings of opposition to his appointment. On 25 September he announced his withdrawal from the post: ‘there were reservations about my name on the part of parties engaged in East Timor and I was no longer interested in serving there,’ he said. ‘The functions of a representative of the UN Secretary-General in East Timor are very broad and must be exercised with the goodwill of all the parties involved.’

The following day, East Timor’s new Foreign Affairs Minister José Luis Guterres expressed regret at Mascarenhas Monteiro’s decision.

Then, on 29 September Mark Dodd wrote in the The Australian that Mascarenhas Monteiro’s commission was actually  revoked by the UN because he supposedly does not speak English. ‘It appears no one at the UN had bothered to ask whether Mr Monteiro, a lawyer, could speak English,’ wrote Dodd, who is the only journalist anywhere in the world to claim that this is the reason behind Mascarenhas Monteiro’s failure to fill the position.

East Timor is now immobilised as it waits for the release of two UN reports, one by the Special Commission of Inquiry on the circumstances leading to the recent crisis, the other a report from the Secretary-General on arrangements between UNMIT and the international security forces.

Sadly, Australia is not playing a constructive role in the latter, having forced a postponement of the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force by insisting that Australian troops remain under national command (green hatted) rather than under the UN (blue hatted). Australia has the support of the USA and the UK, and although East Timor has been persuaded to change its position on this issue, most other countries, including ASEAN members, remain unconvinced.

Photos taken on Sunday of Australian troops driving their tanks onto a reef in a favourite swimming spot outside of Dili have not helped Australia’s ‘hearts and minds’ campaign among the East Timorese. Nor have the events in the Solomon Islands, which East Timorese are watching closely, fearing a RAMSI-style operation under Australian command in their country would be far too interventionist.

While all East Timorese political Parties need to look to their own internal governance and their processes for promoting the next generation of leaders, there is an urgent need for Gusmao, Alkatiri and Ramos Horta, who have been working together for independence for over 30 years, to get together and re-establish a working relationship for the good of the country.

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.