A Question of Balance


The 17 October report by the UN’s Independent Commission of Inquiry for Timor-Leste will be enlightening for many readers, but it does not cover all sides of the recent events. It is a highly political document avoiding the deeper issues behind the recent East Timor crisis and attempting to maintain the status quo through a complex series of criticisms of individuals and institutions on both sides of the power divide in East Timor.

The strong and repeated assertions by President Xanana Gusmão, Prime Minister José Ramos Horta and the FRETILIN leadership that all Timorese should accept the UN findings and let the judicial processes take their course expresses their deep desire for a circuit-breaker.

In its broad view of the last 32 years of Timorese history, the UN report is strongly biased against FRETILIN, endorsing the views of Gusmão that he had to force change on FRETILIN which was some kind of obstacle to the liberation struggle. The report also echoes some groups which aligned themselves with the Indonesian occupation. Consequently, the report commits some howlers saying wrongly, for example, that the opposition political party UDT ( União Democrática Timorense or Timorese Democratic Union) joined the National Council of Maubere Resistance in December 1987 (it was actually 1998), that the present national flag is the FRETILIN flag, and that the national anthem is the FRETILIN anthem.

Despite the report’s anti-FRETILIN bias, however, it does not lay all the blame for the events of 2006 at the feet of the FRETILIN Government.

The report’s major findings are that the so-called ‘petitioners’ protest’ (of dismissed former army personnel who were alleging discrimination and mismanagement within the ranks) led to the 28 April riot; that the army intervened that day on the initiative of the then Prime Minister (Marí Alkatiri) without the agreement of the President; that this was followed by the murder of a police officer at Gleno on 8 May; that in late May at least three armed groups of soldiers and police, and some civilians, attacked the army, and that the army drove them back; these events included a massacre of unarmed police; and that Australian and other foreign forces entered the country to restore order on the invitation of the President, Prime Minister and President of the Parliament, Francisco Guetteres .

The UN report criticises President Gusmão for his handling of the petitioners’ protest and for the way he communicated with Major Alfredo Reinado’s rebel group. It criticises Prime Minister Alkatiri and even calls for more investigation of his role in the distribution of arms to civilians, with a view to criminal prosecution. This is not what Alkatiri’s detractors wanted, nor does it suit the many people who are angry at the President’s manoeuvring. So, the anti-Alkatiri hysteria in the Timorese and Australian press is deflated by the finding that Alkatiri did not order any murders or distribute any arms himself; and that the army did not massacre anyone at Taci Tolu on 28-29 April. And Gusmão is cleared of ordering Reinado or his men to commit any criminal actions.

But there are also serious gaps in the UN report’s findings. For example, it failed to consider information that Alkatiri addressed a letter to the Prime Minister of Portugal on 10 May requesting a company of riot police (GNR) to restore law and order, and that Gusmão immediately objected to the request.

The report doesn’t refer to various meetings during the crisis that allegedly took place between Gusmão and Ramos Horta, the Bishop of Baucau, Reinado, another rebel soldier Major Tara, Vicente ‘Rai Los’ da Conceição (who became the central player in Liz Jackson’s ABC Four Corners program), Chief of Police Paulo Martins, and others. The Commission failed to investigate allegations that these meetings canvassed getting rid of Alkatiri’s Government.

Thanks to Moir

The report failed to consider Ramos Horta’s close liaison with Reinado, Tara, Lieutenant Gastão Salsinha (spokesperson for the ‘petitioners’), and Rai Los during the crisis. And the report failed to properly consider Gusmão ‘s address to the nation of 22 June, when he accused the FRETILIN leadership of ‘distributing arms to and bribing its Congress delegates in May this year. It also left out important information about the massacre of the police on 25 May.

The report recommends criminal prosecutions against the Chief of Police Paulo Martins , Minister of the Interior Rogerio Lobato, Defence Minister Roque Rodrigues and Chief of the Defence Force Taur Matan Ruak mainly for distribution of arms to civilians. Martins comes under the most severe criticism, because he distributed arms wrongly well before the May crisis, and then fled his post at the height of the conflict on 24 May.

Rebel figures Reinado, Rai Los and police commander Abilio Mesquita are strongly condemned and criminal prosecution is recommended. However, only Mesquita is in custody. The reaction of these figures is most unpredictable. Although UN and Australian military leaders met Reinado in the week before the report was released, the picture painted by the Commission is not the picture of Reinado presented by the Australian media.

The UN report indulges a form of ‘balance’ in its recommendations, only by ignoring the context of events. For example, Alkatiri is condemned for calling out the army on 28 April, and for directing that Military Police back up regular police at the petitioners’ protest on that day. But there is no recognition that a major public disorder required a response. This is curious in these times of ‘law and order’ government in Western countries.

However, it is explained if one considers that Gusmão greatly resented Alkatiri’s action. The UN report states that Alkatiri’s actions were strictly unconstitutional because the President was not consulted and the minutes of the decision were not written down. While it notes that the telephone system had collapsed on 28 April, this was apparently not an extenuating circumstance.

Similarly, the army distributed arms its reserves to civilians on 24 May when faced with determined armed attacks around Dili. It then retrieved these arms some days later. On the other hand, the police arms distributed to civilians were used to attack the Government’s army and many have still not been returned. The UN report condemns both these arms distributions equally ignoring the real differences.

The report also states the case against Lobato (that he illegally distributed arms to Rai Los) as fact, even though he has still to stand trial. This is a denial of Lobato’s right to a presumption of innocence and also fails to account for the report’s finding that Rai Los attacked the army, not the petitioners or FRETILIN critics, as Rai Los claimed Alkatiri and Lobato had ordered him.

In considering the Timorese judicial system and its capacity to manage the many trials recommended in the report, the Commission made the startling finding that the Prosecutor-General, Longuinos Monteiro, does not act independently, but considers that he should carry out the President’s policy. This might help explain why Reinado and Rai Los continue to be armed and free, and why it took so long to arrest Reinado in late July. The UN report recommends appointing an international person as a Deputy Prosecutor-General with the main responsibility for investigating and prosecuting the people named in the repor

Based on statements by Alkatiri, FRETILIN is happy to accept this tough dose of medicine and allow the judicial process to make findings and impose sentences over the next several months and years.

The President is yet to make a statement, but can be expected to take a similar attitude.

All in all, the report does not manage to explain why the violent upheaval took place, beyond very broad comments on institutional weakness and fragility.

This situation really means that the people will make the basic judgement about who they trust to lead the nation at the elections scheduled for April 2007. Just who the candidates for President and Prime Minister will be is yet to be determined.

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.