A leaked US diplomatic cable from the US Embassy in Lisbon in 2006 details a senior Portuguese intelligence official accusing Australia of fomenting the violence in East Timor that year.
The cable, published two weeks ago on the Portuguese news weekly Expresso’s website, states that Australia was encouraging unrest, and that it was motivated by oil. Jorge Carvalho, the chief of staff of the Portuguese intelligence agency, is quoted telling the embassy that "Australia had previously fomented unrest for its benefit". The cable continues:
"He cited two instances — demarcation negotiations of the maritime border between East Timor and Australia and demarcation negotiations of oil exploration boundaries off the shore of East Timor — where Australia had fomented unrest to put the pressure on the government of East Timor".
The cable, dated 12 June 2006, was deemed by the US Embassy in Lisbon to be credible enough to circulate to US embassies in Canberra, Dili, the UN, NATO and Washington — as well as to New Zealand and Kuala Lumpur who were also contributing troops to East Timor. The cable’s author, US Ambassador to Portugal Al Hoffman, defends the credibility of his Portuguese intelligence source calling him "an important pro-American Embassy contact who is not only knowledgeable in intelligence matters but well connected to political parties across the spectrum".
Hoffman goes on to add that Carvalho’s analysis of East Timor was dispassionate: "even his criticism of Australia was delivered in a matter of fact manner".
At the same time as the cable was being written, I was in Dili investigating the cause of the 2006 unrest — which led to the displacement of 130,000 people and the deployment of 2500 international troops to quell the violence. I received information from senior figures in the Timorese armed forces, the F-FDTL, that on three occasions in the previous 18 months two foreigners had approached the F-FDTL leadership requesting their assistance in carrying out an armed coup against the Alkatiri government.
Then prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, told New Matilda at the time that he had been informed of the developments but had not acted on them, as he was confident the F-FDTL leadership would respect the constitution.
Then of course emerged the case of the "petitioners" within the armed forces — a group of 600 soldiers who had been sacked in March after complaining of regional discrimination — and the defection of major Alfredo Reinado and 30 of his men, with weapons.
It was Reinado who began the actual attacks on the F-FDTL on 23 May. The following day, co-ordinated attacks were carried out on the house of the head of the F-FDTL, Major General Taur Matan Ruak, and the F-DTL base on the western outskirts of Dili. The attack on the base was led by a man called Rai Los, who would later emerge as the chief informant in an ABC Four Corners program alleging that Alkatiri had provided him with weapons to form a death squad. Those allegations were instrumental in forcing Alkatiri from power. (The Four Corners team won a Gold Walkley that year for their efforts.)
Reinado was also allowed by the Australian forces to remain free and continue to call for Alkatiri’s resignation — and was provided with SAS bodyguards in his historic hotel accommodation in the hill town of Maubisse.
It seems that whoever had been making approaches to the F-FDTL had finally found some lower level soldiers to carry out their planned coup.
As I detailed in a story for SBS Dateline, "Downfall of a Prime Minister", which went to air on 30 September that year, there were many people in Timor suggesting that Alkatiri-rival (and then president), Xanana Gusmao, had received the support of the Australians and that the armed groups of Reinado and Rai Los, and elements of the police, had initiated the attacks on the F-FDTL. The rumours and accusations of Australian support for the rebel soldiers and the opposition parties were fuelled by the involvement of the Australian military in evacuating the families of pro-Gusmao figures.
Coincidentally, on the day our program went to air, Reinado and 56 of his men walked out of the prison in Dili where he had been incarcerated after Portuguese police had found a large cache of weapons in his house across the road from the Australian base in Dili. The Australian military blamed the New Zealand troops based in the area and nothing more was ever said about it.
Reinado of course was shot dead at the house Jose Ramos Horta on 11 February 2008, after he had recorded a DVD message accusing Gusmao of being behind the 2006 violence.
Rai Los is now a rich man and has recently received a government contract from the Gusmao Government to oversee the laying of power lines in the Liquisa mountain district where he is from. The other rebel leaders have all been pardoned for their role in the 2008 attack on Jose Ramos Horta with former rebel leader Gastao Salsinha telling Timorese news weekly Tempo Semanal, "They played with us as if they played cards, to promote their own interests".
In the Wikileaks cable, Carvalho explains bluntly why Australia was interfering in East Timor’s politics, "Australia’s motives were driven by geopolitical and commercial (e.g. oil) Interests".
At the time, the Fretilin government believed it was Australian support for Gusmao and his anti-Fretilin coalition that had emboldened the opposition to continue demonstrations, armed attacks on the army and gang violence to call for Alkatiri to resign. According to Alkatiri at the time, there was only one world leader calling on him to resign: former Australian prime minister John Howard.
After he finally did step down as prime minister, Mari Alkatiri hinted of Australian involvement in his resignation, particularly focussing on the role of the Australian media, "for me when all the media take the same line accusing me by spreading allegations of all kinds. It seems that there is some mastermind. To quote to give instructions and orientation to the media to do it for the single same purpose to get to have me to get me to step down".
Speaking of his resignation and the campaign to get rid of him he told me in an interview at the time "this has been very well planned and executed very intelligently, professionally".
With more than 300 Cables from the US Embassy in Dili among those to be released by Wikileaks, we will finally get a much clearer picture of what role Australia played in the regime change in East Timor in 2006.
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