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East Timor forfeits its newest hero

Following the attack on East Timor president Jose Ramos Hortes, Carole Reckinger and Sara Gonzalez Devant report on the complexities surrounding the current crisis

March 5, 2008
8 min read

Two weeks ago, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) news and analysis service reported that Timor-Leste’s quiescent security environment ‘breached only occasionally, as with two recent small explosions in Dili … and the rare provocation by Alfredo Reinado … is conducive for Timor-Leste to carry out its much needed reforms.’ The report was published only hours before Timor-Leste’s president Jose Ramos-Horta was shot and prime minister Xanana Gusmao ambushed on the morning of 11 February 2008. The president is recovering in a hospital in Australia, having regained consciousness after a ten day induced coma.

On the day of the attack a state of emergency was instated and arrest warrants issued against 17 people. Among them, Gastao Salsinha, reportedly in command of the defectors after their leader Alfredo Reinado, a former military police major, was killed during the attack on Ramos-Horta.

Incredulity and anger prevails in Dili. International forces dispatched to Timor-Leste to keep the peace have met with harsh criticism for their failure to prevent the attack. The incident has also triggered anger and distrust among the population. However, the significance of the attack does not lie in the security forces failings.

The assault on the supreme constitutional symbols – prime minister and president- the very heroes of the liberation struggle, lays bare Timor’s national identity crisis. Not only because the country was so close to losing its icons but because it lost its newest icon in Alfredo Reinado. He was given a hero’s burial in Dili, his coffin draped in the Timorese flag and, as BBC article reports, ‘his bearded face looked down defiantly from banners in a revolutionary pose that deliberately aped the portraits they used to host of Xanana Gusmao.’

Military and police under a single command

In an attempt to catch Reinado’s men East Timor’s authorities have merged police and army under a single command.

The underlying rationale that it is necessary to guarantee the adequate mobilisation of security and defence forces during the state of exception. But the decision has sparked criticism.  The lack of a clear separation between internal and external security may be fatal for the nascent security institutions and lead to tension as it did in 2006. Then, after the sacking of mutinous soldiers, rioting resulted in at least 37 deaths and the displacement of over 150,000 people.

The 2006 crisis and the breakdown of security forces

In April 2006 Dili went up in flames after 600 soldiers protested against discrimination within the ranks of the newly formed Timorese army. The protesters, ‘or petitioners’, were summarily dismissed. Clashes between elements of the national police force (PNTL) and the military (F-FDTL) led to a power vacuum and the breakdown of law and order across the country.

Neither the PNTL nor the F-FDTL had the trust of the population or the capacity to provide adequate security and order. Repeated allegations of sexual harassment, human rights violations, illegal weapons distribution and engagement in illicit trade weakened the public’s confidence in the PNTL in particular. As the 2006 crisis demonstrated neither police nor military were politically neutral, both institutions fragmented due to mixed regional and political loyalties in the ranks, although ethnic and regional divisions had not previously been prominent in Timor-Leste.

With the collapse of the security sector and law and order in general, a multinational peacekeeping force was requested to restore order in late May 2006. Since then efforts have been made to resolve the multiple issues affecting both institutions, but reversing the breakdown is not a simple task.

Reinado, the symbol of a disillusioned Timor-Leste

Reinado, one of the leaders of the mutineers, emerged from the 2006 crisis as a key player. His popularity is remarkable, even after apparently leading an attack on the two most prominent (living) heroes of the liberation struggle. A BBC report cautioned that ‘there is something worrying about the readiness of East Timor’s young to pass the hero’s mantle on to a man like Reinado, who took up arms against the government in the chaos of May 2006 and refused to lay them down. Reinado had nothing to offer East Timor except the continued idealisation of armed struggle as an alternative to the unglamorous task of building a country from very little.’

But analysis such as the BBC’s cites overemphasises the institutional failings of the Timorese state and pays little attention to the role of popular perception in articulating the country’s predicament. The crisis exists as much on the streets of Dili as it does at the state level. It is not quite as simple as glamour versus nation building. Nation building is a highly political moment, particularly after a major political crisis, and politics are key to Reinado’s popularity. But to understand his popular appeal focus must shift away from the institutional context and to a major societal crisis that has been ongoing since 2006- internal displacement.

Internal displacement

The vast majority of the persons displaced during the 2006 crisis have not returned to their homes. About 100,000 refugees remain in camps. Of these, 30,000 are in the capital Dili. To reduce camp populations and fearing some camps would become permanent, authorities decided to cut food rations in February 2008 with food aid ending completely by March 2008. But with the state of emergency this decision could not have come at a worse time.

Atul Khare, UN Special Representative for the Secretary General in Timor-Leste, has explained that resettlement is extremely complex, because it involves addressing land and property issues and community hostility. The UN humanitarian coordinator also said that ‘for many IDPs [internally Displaced People] it is simply not an option for them to return to their neighbourhoods as the people there don’t want them back… Six thousand of their houses have been burned and only 450 transitional shelters have been built to date. There is nowhere to go back to.’

The rise and fall of Alfredo Reinado

Reinado became a symbol of the disenfranchised – youths, the poor, veterans -and key to balancing peace in East Timor. Shortly after his arrest in 2006, he escaped from Becora prison along with 56 other inmates, later boasting that he waved at New Zealand soldiers as he left. In March 2007 the president at this time, Xanana Gusmao, sanctioned an Australian operation to capture Reinado after his men raided weapons from a police post. The operation resulted in several deaths but Reinado eluded capture, his popularity growing among Dili youths. He was able to represent the projected hopes of many of those for whom independence brought more disappointment and poverty.

Reinado was a liability but also bold and charismatic. His defiant messages to the authorities and vanishing acts made him a romantic figure that resonated with a generation that had lost its heroes. Journalist Max Stahl has likened him to Che Guevara, ‘a poster figure on laptops, and graffiti sketches around Dili.’

While most media reports have been quick to qualify the attacks as a coup or assassination attempt, others are more cautious. The emerging theory is Reinado was losing his support base among the petitioners. It is likely the attack, increasingly rumoured to have been an attempted kidnapping rather than an assassination attempt or coup, was a pre-emptive move to prevent the impending defection of his support base.

There is a thin line between rumour, misinformation and premature conclusions as reported in the media. Observers have increasingly focused on the fact very little is known about what actually happened on the morning of the 11 February. As one blogger has observed, even of what little is known there are conflicting reports:

‘I have heard/read “Alfredo shot in a bedroom/shot at the front gate”, “shooting started at 6:50am versus Alfredo shot 30 minutes before the President”, “kidnap not assassination”, “PM Xanana knew nothing about what happened 40 minutes before / made fully aware”, my cyclist friend [who warned the President of gun-shots when he was returning home from his morning exercise, moments before he was shot] has been elevated to diplomat but downgraded to jogger.’

Reinado’s popularity even after his death attests to a social reality that is quite different from what appears in the international media-the hero of the disenfranchised, rather than the outlandish renegade. Timor-Leste may have lost its most recent hero in Reinado but the nature of his achievements is perhaps more emblematic of Timor-Leste’s youths’ frustrations and loss of purpose.

Sara Gonzalez Devant and Carole Reckinger are freelance writers who worked in Timor-Leste between 2005-2006.

More of their articles can be viewed at http://1000forgottenstories.wordpress.com/

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