[Easttimorstudies] alternative analysis of crisis

Bob Boughton 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
Bob Boughton

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
Senior Lecturer
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
Homepage http://fehps.une.edu.au/PDal/People/boughton.html

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