Information und Analyse

Dili Update – Notes from my visit to Dili February/March 2007

06 March 2007

By Henri Myrttinen

Overall Situation

Wanted FugitivesPhoto:Jörg Meier

Wanted Fugitives

Photo: Jörg Meier

The situation in Dili continues to be defined by the on-going violence, which tends to fluctuate in terms of its intensity and the stated reasons for it seem to change with time. What a year ago was a conflict within the security forces became a sectarian loro monu/loro sa’e conflict, this then morphed into fights between various gangs, most notably PSHT vs. 7-7. During the course of the approximately 3 weeks which I recently spent in Dili, the ‘justifications’ for the violence underwent several more changes, from internecine gang warfare to demands for rice to anti-Australian demonstrations (following the airport IDP camp killings) to pro-Reinado riots to a mixture of the two latter points.

These conflicts are of course were complimented and partially also influenced by the ongoing struggles within the power elites. During the past few weeks, for example, pro-Fretilin groups, attacked Lasama’s convoy and anti-Fretilin groups attacked participants of the Fretilin congress in Gleno. At the moment, of course, the case of Major Alfredo Reinado and its impacts are the main causes of concern.

On the whole, the level of violence seems to have intensified over the past few weeks, with record numbers of government and UN vehicles attacked, several government ministries attacked and burned, record numbers of arrests by UNPOL, numerous deaths and an additional 5.000 IDPs seeking refuge in the camps over the past few weeks.

The recent violence seems to have climaxed last Saturday/Sunday (3.3.-4.3.2007) with widespread and sustained fighting across Dili (and of course in Same) but things are expected to take another turn for the worse in the very near future. Possible triggers are the expected sentencing of ex-interior minister Rogerio Lobato on 7 March which will be accompanied by a demonstration of the pro-Reinado MUNJ a day later; a capture and/or killing of Reinado by the ISF and the heating up of the presidential elections scheduled for April 9. Australia has begun a partial evacuation of its nationals from Timor Leste.

The violence has led to its own peculiar kind of time/space-continuum of fear: people restrict their movement around town to daylight hours and to certain parts of town as well as certain routes, adapting these as necessary as rumours of clashes and roadblocks are spread, mostly by SMS or word-of-mouth. Needless to say, this is extremely disruptive to people’s everyday lives and hampers not only the social fabric of the city (and by extension the nation) and the economy but also the work of the government and administration. Many civil servants in fact live in IDP camps, commuting to work in the ministries when the situation allows them to.

The UNMIT SRSG Khare has made it a point that he wishes to show that he is able to go anywhere in Dili at anytime, meaning that he pops up at random trouble spots at 3 in the morning or goes to a market at noon. In that sense he seems at times to be more visible than the government. For example when the MUNJ descended upon Dili end of February, it was Khare who went to meet them to convince them to return home, not the RDTL government. I did however occasionally get the impression that UNMIT was not quite on top of things, especially when it comes to the issue of trying to tackle the widespread violence. In terms of dealing with the violence, this impression of impotence 1 also applies to the ISF.

The Airport IDP camp seems to be fast becoming the most politicised, organised and vocal IDP camp, following the killings of three IDPs (one in October, two last week) by Australian ISF members. The Airport IDPs formed an informal coalition, including representatives of several other IDP camps and three martial arts groups (all three of which are theoretically in conflict with each other), which signed a joint declaration denouncing ISF actions. I think it is quite possible that the IDP camps, above all the one at the airport which is also geographically closer to Delta, Comoro, Kampung Baru, etc., might become the locus for new forms of political activities and coalitions, bypassing the traditional party-political structures and civil society organisations.

The Rice Crisis

Before Alfredo grabbed the headlines, one of the main issues affecting people’s lives was the rice crisis. During the Indonesian occupation, rice became the staple food, replacing locally grown foods such as yams, sweet potatoes, bananas or cassava. This is in fact a regional phenomenon and can be seen across the eastern part of Indonesia. As in other parts of South-East Asia, the rains in Timor Leste have been erratic this rainy season. The local shortfall in produce is exacerbated by a regional one: rice is scarce across the region and the major exporters’ harvests are late. Thus the rice stocks were depleted across the country and the rice price tripled or quadrupled, making it impossible for the average Timorese family to purchase their staple food.

In the short-term handling of the crisis, one might criticise both the government and the UN agencies for being a bit slow on the uptake but this was a matter of a delay of a few days rather than weeks. In the longer term, of course, a more sustainable approach to the rice issue needs to be found. Relying on WFP food stocks and imports or donations from abroad are not an optimal solution. Instead, there should, in my opinion, be a long-term policy of moving away from imported rice to favouring the above-mentioned local staple food alternatives.

The Rice Crisis was actively used by various groups to attack the government, amongst them the MUNJ (‘we demand rice and justice for the people’ was the slogan of their spokesperson Agusto Jr. Trinidade when I interviewed him in Dili Stadium, where a large banner of Alfredo as a kind of ‘patron saint of justice’ had been hung), student groups, opposition parties and members of the clergy.

The Role of the Church and the Media

Unfortunately, the roles of two of the main opinion-making institutions, the Catholic Church and the national media, have not always been very helpful in the current situation. Instead of working constructively towards resolving the crisis, they, along with the political parties, have often tended to exacerbate differences with partial, biased or plainly wrong information. The somewhat renegade priest Domingo Soares (also known as ‘Maubere’), who led the anti-government protests in 2005 over the issue of making religious education in schools optional, claimed for example during the rice crisis that the government was giving rice only to Fretilin members and their families. Supporters of Fretilin, especially those more in line with Alkatiri’s visions, have frequently complained of members of the clergy inciting people against Fretilin.

Having had neither a radio nor TV at my disposal this time, my superficial media critique this time around will mostly concentrate on the print media I was able to access. Both Timor Post and Suara Timor Leste (STL) seem to have a tendency to give priority to sensationalist headlines over balanced reporting, which of course is by no means a phenomenon limited to Timor Leste. One example that springs to mind was when after the stoning of Lasama’s car by Fretilin supporters, STL had a headline along the lines of ‘UNPOL biased in its protection of politicians.’ Only much later in the article does it become clear that this was merely an opinion expressed by a PD member and countered by UNPOL in the same article. Given a volatile situation already fraught with rumours, this kind of reporting tends to be rather unconstructive.

STL is also openly supporting the presidential bid of José Ramos Horta (JRH). When announcing the names of the presidential candidates, for example, STL added ‘Ramos Horta for President’ into its front page headline and had two full pages of commentary in support of JRH inside. When announcing the candidate numbers of the presidential candidates the next day, JRH (number 6) was mentioned first in STL’s article, only then followed by Fretilin’s Lu-Olo (number 1) and the other five candidates.

As mentioned, I did not systematically follow radio or TV broadcasts but I did notice than unlike from what I was able to gather of the coverage of TVTL in October/November 2006, this time TVTL actually did report about the crisis.

The foreign media coverage of events in Timor Leste tends to be limited to Indonesian, Portuguese and above all Australian coverage. I unfortunately did not have the time to monitor Indonesian media but have been receiving (thanks to mailing lists) relatively extensive coverage of Australian and European press reports. As noted by more than one international observer, Portuguese reporting often has had a pro-Fretilin bias while Australian media has often been biased against Fretilin, especially against Alkatiri and what Australian media has started to call the ‘Maputo Group,’ with all its shady insinuations. Australian media’s coverage of and role in the April/May 2006 crisis has raised a number of questions, not just in conspiracy buff circles.

It is also interesting to see how many of the Australian media outlets and political pundits take a victory for JRH in the presidential elections followed by a victory of Xanana Gusmão’s new CNRT in the parliamentary elections for granted. From my personal observations, this may not be such a foregone conclusion. It does not seem to me that JRH has actually been able to build all that much of a grassroots support basis, though this is just my personal impression. In general, his persona does not seem to raise as much discussion, be it either pro or contra, as contrasted for example with Xanana, Alkatiri or, the most controversial of them all at the moment, Alfredo Reinado.

Xanana seems to have lost political and moral capital due to what are perceived as his political power games and behind-the-scenes dealings. Several relatively high-ranking F-FDTL members I talked to were openly dismissive of their commander-in-chief, as were several of the proverbial ‘women/men on the street’ in Dili. The gravest gamble for Xanana was, however, to move against Alfredo, who was thought (at least by his supporters and his opponents) to have at least the tacit support of the president.

The Case of Alfredo

The series of events surrounding Reinado over the past few days – the raiding of the border posts, Xanana publicly turning against him, the stand-off in Same and the botched Australian capture attempt – have inevitably spawned endless speculations, rumours and theories. For Xanana, it definitely was a major political gamble, as those supporting Alfredo tended, from my observations, to regard Xanana as their natural ally. It is hard to imagine an outcome of the crisis through which Xanana would be able to regain the support of Alfredo’s supporters. Xanana’s sisters houses have already been attacked by Reinado supporters and they have issued death threats against Xanana and his family.

Based on my random discussions in Dili, there tends to be a majority ‘conspiracy consensus’ that Reinado will not be captured alive as he is regarded as being too much of a liability to Xanana, to the ISF and the opposition parties, perhaps even to the government. This of course goes into the realm of rumours and speculation – but it is exactly these kinds of rumours and speculations which form opinions and shape political responses. When the street violence last weekend spread to the otherwise quiet Audian neighbourhood where I was staying, the reason I was given was that Alfredo had been shot by the ISF, prompting fire-fights in central, western and southern Dili until sunrise. In an environment where ‘objective’ information is hard to come by and few people trust the messengers, reality is shaped by the way people react to rumours and speculation.

The motivations for Reinado’s actions remain somewhat sketchy. He tends to cast himself as a ‘defender of the people,’ fighting for ‘truth and justice.’ A group of the border police unit (BPU) who joined Alfredo was more specific: they had given the requested weapons to Reinado and joined his group „reason being that we did not want that these weapons to end up in the hands of the radical Maputo group to be used to kill people.” (João Martinho, 27.02.2007).

Thus the ‘anti-communist’ rhetoric which members of the clergy, amongst others, have been spreading has also been taken up by Reinado and his followers:

”Ramos Horta and Mari Alkatiri are the founders of the Fretilin communist government,” he says. „They have been communists since 1975, but they wear a democratic mask. The East Timorese government is supporting communism — it still continues to this day.” (Alfredo Reinado, interview with The Bulletin, 01.03.2007)

Much has been made in the Australian media of his ‘taunting of Australian soldiers’ and his ‘threat to kill Australian soldiers,’ even though the transcripts of his interviews do not in my view fully justify these headlines. He has said he will fight if attacked (i.e. be it by Timorese, Australians, New Zealanders, or Malaysian or Bangladeshi UNPOL), but I so far have not seen any specific death threat against Australians. He has a penchant for bravado („Tell the Australian troops to stick surrender up their arse,” The Age, 01.03.07) but has actively sought to negotiate his way out of situations if and when possible, as was the case in Same as well.

When talking to Alfredo’s supporters, the standard answer is that he is ‘seeking/defending justice.’ The exact definition of what is meant by this justice remains, as it maybe must, somewhat vague to say the least. His persona and his struggle with the authorities have perhaps become a canvas upon which to project the feelings of injustice; of economic, social and political marginalisation; of a sense of betrayal by the political elites and hopes for a better, ‘just,’ future for those who feel that independence has not been what they expected. Personally I am of the opinion that these feelings, which I fully respect as being genuine and in many ways legitimate, are being manipulated, perhaps not so much by Alfredo himself but by more savvy political animals, such as in the MUNJ and in some of the opposition parties.

The Australian media has taken to calling Major Reinado ‘the renegade soldier and folk hero’ or ‘a cult hero wanted for murder and rebellion’ (The Age, 01.03.07) I think this needs to be qualified, as at least as many people ‘on the street’ that I spoke to who supported Alfredo were opposed to him, often violently (one comment was ‘he is a terrorist and should be shot’) . What is, however, obvious is that almost all imaginable outcomes for this current crisis seem unfortunately to point to an increase in violence, especially in Dili.

1 I use impotence in full realisation of its sexual connotations, which I feel are appropriate here, given the conspicuous macho swagger of patrolling ISF units flaunting their hi-tech ‘gear’ (light machine guns, APCs with mounted 30 mm cannons, grenade launchers, etc.) – which they and the Timorese know will not be put to use against teenage rioters. <>

Henri Myrttinen, e-mail:

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