[Easttimorstudies] alternative analysis of crisis
bob.boughton at une.edu.au
Mon May 29 10:18:54 EST 2006
This alterative analysis, taking up Mari Alkatiri's suggestion of a
coup, needs to be considered
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 the
army 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 a
VB' 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
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 US
Embassy (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
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
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
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 several
times, both before and after independence.
Dr. Bob Boughton
Adult Education & Training
School of Professional Development and Leadership
University of New England
Armidale NSW 2351, Australia
On Study Leave, Semester 1, 2006
phone: 02 6649 2642 (While on Study Leave)
email: bob.boughton at une.edu.au
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