Australian, Portuguese and Malaysian commandos
land in East Timor to quell the island nation's
spiraling violence, questions loom large about the
actual motivation behind the military and police
mutiny that led to the unrest and how best to
salvage the country's tumultuous experiment with
Rebel soldiers under the
command of Military Police Major Alfredo Reinaldo
on Wednesday mounted an all-out assault in East
Timor's capital Dili, including attacks on key
government strategic installations, including the
Ministry of Defense and the house of the Timorese
defense force commander.
More than 70% of
the capital's police force have since deserted
their posts, and many have joined the rebel
soldiers. Of East
Timor's 1,500-member defense
force, an estimated 400 men now remain loyal to
the government. Even the most trusted elite units,
such as the Rapid Intervention Unit (UIR) and the
jungle police, have abandoned the chain of
Last week, the rebel leaders and
Timorese government officials were confident that
the crisis sparked a month ago by a group of
500-600 disgruntled decommissioned soldiers had
been defused through negotiations. Australian
Foreign Minister Alexander Downer had earlier said
that he foresaw no need for foreign intervention
to stabilize the situation.
projected battalion of 1,300 men should all be in
place over the weekend, bringing with them armored
personal carriers, warships, tanks and Black Hawk
helicopters. Malaysia has deployed a battalion and
Portugal, East Timor's former colonial occupier,
is sending a company of its elite GNR
special-policy unit. The United Nations has
endorsed the intervention.
officials moved quickly to call on perceived
friendly nations to lead the intervention, fearing
the potential of Indonesia reintroducing troops
into the country if the violence escalated. Early
reports indicate that the rebel leaders have
retreated, and that Australian troops have
enforced a modicum of law and order.
Indonesia has so far remained mum about
the three-country intervention, but the heavy
deployment of the Australian military could spark
tensions between the two unfriendly neighbors.
Bilateral relations hit a nadir when Australia led
an international force against the Indonesian
military and their proxy militia to end bloodshed
in East Timor in 1999. More recently, Indonesia
has balked at Canberra's decision to grant asylum
to a group of 42 refugees from Papua province on
Four years after
establishing an independent government, East Timor
is once again under occupation - this time by an
contention There are many factors
underlying East Timor's political tinderbox:
regional and ethnic rivalries, political
factionalism, unemployment and a culture of
violence stemming from 24 years of brutal
Indonesian occupation. But some argue the real
trigger to the violence was the dubious
circumstances behind the re-election of Prime
Minister Mari Alkatiri as secretary general of the
ruling Fretilin party.
Fretilin's own internal rules, voting by secret
ballot was recently replaced with an open vote, by
way of show of hands. Alkatiri, an Arab Muslim
with a controversial ruling style, was recently
re-elected as the party's leader in a landslide
97% open vote.
Rebels had recently
abstained from new attacks, hoping that the
earlier unrest would have persuaded Alkatiri to
step aside and make way for Jose Luis Guterres,
East Timor's current ambassador to Washington and
the United Nations, to take over the party reins.
Rebel leaders have repeatedly said they want
Alkatiri to resign his leadership position.
Alkatiri's personal popularity has
steadily waned during his four-year term, even
though the former rebel Fretilin party's
credibility is still strong among the general
population. Most of the party's leadership was
killed during the war for independence and the
only surviving founding figures, such as Jose
Ramos Horta, or longtime members, such as
President Xanana Gusmao, abandoned the party in
the late 1980s to become independent figures for
the sake of national unity. Alkatiri is one of the
party's few surviving founders.
spent the 24-year fight for independence from
Indonesia in relative obscurity in exile in
Mozambique. Upon returning, his style of
leadership, akin to that of some of the abusive
African leaders he may have encountered, has been
characterized by confrontation, particularly with
the influential Catholic Church. That Alkatiri is
an ethnic-Arab Muslim while 92% of the population
is devout Catholic has pitched his vocal stands
against the Church on dangerous religious lines.
politics More significantly, perhaps,
Alkatiri has implemented a foreign policy overtly
confrontational to the West. His recent decision
to hire nearly 500 Cuban doctors after visiting
that country, despite strong objections from the
US ambassador, was highly controversial and oddly
aligned East Timor with the resurgent leftist
movement gaining ground in Latin America.
Likewise, Alkatiri's bizarre attempt to
declare a national day of mourning for Yasser
Arafat's death did not endear him to the US or
other Western countries. There was also widespread
speculation that Alkatiri planned to award a
multibillion-dollar gas-pipeline project to
PetroChina, an invitation that would have won both
the United States' and Australia's ire.
The United States' discontent with
Alkatiri was clearly on display when the US
ambassador openly supported the Catholic Church
against his government during street protests last
year, with the senior US official even briefly
attending one of the protests in person. Political
insiders now wonder about the United States'
connections to rebel leader Reinaldo, whose wife
works for the US Embassy and helps to oversee the
Peace Corps program.
The Timorese police
and military had been called upon to defend his
government's sometimes controversial positions on
numerous occasions since independence, regrettably
at the cost of four civilian deaths in 2002.
Inside the police and military, senior officers
had become increasingly uneasy using force to
protect an increasingly unpopular leader.
The last straw, it appears, came when the
military was ordered to replace the police to
contain the recent riots, which led to five
civilian deaths. When a new bout of disquiet broke
out after Alkatiri's unconventional re-election as
Fretilin party leader, the massive desertions
ensued. Now only foreigners can ensure the
As East Timor burns,
one thing is certain: Alkatiri has lost the
support of the people, the military, the police,
the Church and potentially the country's most
important foreign allies. President Xanana had
recently relieved Alkatiri of his security
responsibilities and assumed command himself, a
decision Alkatiri refused on a legal technicality.
With the security forces now in open revolt, even
with foreign troop intervention, there will not be
a definitive end to the crisis until Alkatiri
unconditionally resigns, some insiders contend.
As Australia, Portugal and Malaysia all
dig their boots into East Timor's sands, many now
wonder how long they will need to stay put to
ensure the young country's security. East Timor's
problems are entirely internal, with a pinch of
foreign salt perhaps, but in the end will require
an internally brokered compromise and solution.
And the longer the unpopular Alkatiri holds on to
power, the more distant that prospect remains.
Loro Horta is a master's degree
candidate at Nanyang Technological University's
Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in
Singapore. He previously served as an adviser to
the East Timorese Defense Department. The views
expressed here are strictly his own.