31.5.06

Timor-Leste: textos importantes

What is Howard's Role in the Timor Leste Coup?
By Tim Anderson

The violence in Dili is hardly an industrial dispute, nor spontaneous ethnic violence. Timor Leste's Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri, says the armed attacks are part of an attempted coup, and follow a history of destabilisation attempts. It is likely he knows better than the Australian pundits, who have been speaking simply of 'east west' rivalry, and an 'immature' nation, unready for independence.
Such caricatures of the country and the government are misleading and dangerous. There has been destabilisation of the legitimate Fretilin government, ever since independence, and the Howard government has played a part. An important question now is: how much of a part?
A fairly high level of organisation, and confidence, can be seen both in the mobilisation of weapons and the international appeals from thearmy defectors. Heavy weapons were taken, and renegade leader Alfredo Reinado (who joined Gastao Salsinha, leader of the sacked soldiers)says he welcomes the arrival Australian troops, and wants to 'have aVB' with the aussies.
Such familiarity from a person engaged in murder and mutiny is disturbing. And instead of calling Reinado and his followers 'criminals' or 'terrorists', John Howard has turned on the Alkatiri Government. As the troops roll in Howard says "The country has not been well governed .. the real challenge is to get a government that has the confidence of the local people".
Coup plotters rarely act without assurances of outside support, or at the least post-coup recognition. A US guarantee of regime recognition was central to the Chilean coup of 1973, and the abortive 2002 coup in Venezuela. More recently in Haiti, even though the US had no credible alternative candidate, they fomented violence to remove a popular leftist leader.
Media backing is essential for a coup. Paul Kelly from The Australian (which has waged a long campaign against the Fretilin government) questions whether the democratically elected PM of the country "has a long-term role here as part of the solution". Some diplomats are reported as saying that the resignation of Alkatiri "may convince the warring gangs to lay down their arms".
On this argument, PM Alkatiri only "survived" the recent Fretilin elections, where he faced a possible challenge from a Washington-based diplomat. In fact, Alkatiri won more than 90%support in the party vote, and Fretilin retains almost 60% support across the country.
While the internal rivalry between Prime Minister Alkatiri and President Xanana Gusmao has received a lot of attention, less has been said about international tensions and destabilisation, which has followed several disputes. The dispute over oil and gas is well known. Mari Alkatiri had the support of all parties in driving a hard line with the Howard government. Many believe the Timorese were still robbed by a deal Howard continues to call 'generous'. Less well known are the disputes over agriculture, where Australia and the World Bank refused to help rehabilitate and build the Timorese rice industry, and refused to support use of aid money for grain silos. Under Alkatiri, the Timorese have reduced their rice import-dependence from two-thirds to one-third of domestic consumption.
After independence an expensive phone service run by Telstra was replaced by a government joint venture with a Portuguese company. And following a popular campaign, Timor Leste remains one of the few 'debt free' poor countries. Alkatiri's consideration here, as economic manager, was to retain some control over the country's budget, and the building of public institutions.
In 2005 there was a Church led dispute over the apparent relegation of religious education to 'voluntary' status in schools. The dispute was resolved, but not before it had become the focus of an open campaign to remove Alkatiri, who was branded a 'communist'. During this dispute some East Timorese were alarmed to see that the USEmbassy (and possibly also the Australians) providing material support (such as portable toilets) to the demonstrators, effectively backing an opposition movement.
Over 2004-06 the Alkatiri government secured the services dozens of Cuban doctors, and several hundred young Timorese students are now in Cuba, studying medicine free of charge. No one criticises this valuable assistance, but the US does all it can to undermine Cuban policy.It is worth remembering that the suggested 'communist' politics of Fretilin in 1975 was a major reason for US support for the Indonesian invasion and occupation. Australia followed suit. Today the 'communist' tag is again used by Reinado to target the Fretilin government.
Reinado rejects government orders, but has allied himself to Xanana and Jose Ramos Horta, the two non-Fretilin members of the government. (Ramos Horta is known to be close to the Bush administration.) It is not clear yet to what extent Xanana and Ramos Horta have links to Reinado. Alkatiri has not, contrary to media reports, accused the President of complicity. Yet the coup attempt proceeds in Xanana's name.
The current situation is complicated by the arming of civilian groups on both sides of the coup plot, and the fact that troops from several countries have been invited. Of these, the Portuguese seem to maintain strongest support for the Timorese government, while the Australians seem to be apologising for the plotters.
A possible 'junta' to be installed by Australian intervention (already hinted at by Kirsty Sword Gusmao) could include nominees of the Catholic bishops, Ramos Horta and an ailing Xanana (ill with kidney disease). The forced removal of Mari Alkatiri, his ministers and army chief Taur Matan Ruak, and the presence of occupying troops till next year's election might seriously undermine Fretilin's dominant position. But then again, the coup might fail.
Occupying armies are bad news for democracy. The Australian government comes to its most recent intervention in Timor Leste literally 'blooded' from its spectacularly unsuccessful interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Solomons.
The current intervention may be necessary, if it has been legitimately called for by the East Timorese government; but it is also a great danger for the country's democracy. Australian people, who strongly supported independence for the people of Timor Leste, should watch Howard's latest intervention very closely.
Tim Anderson is an academic who has visited Timor Leste severaltimes, both before and after independence.
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Dr. Bob Boughton
Senior Lecturer Adult Education & Training
School of Professional Development and Leadership
University of New England
Armidale NSW 2351, Australia via Timor Online