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East Timor: the story we weren't told

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Former prime minister Alkatiri has been blamed for the chaos in his country. But John Martinkus writes that Alkatiri's accusers haven't explained who started the violence

source:  The Age


THREE weeks ago I was in East Timor, where senior members of the East Timorese military confirmed what the now deposed prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, has been saying all along: that there had been three attempts since April last year to get senior army commanders to carry out a coup against his government.

In light of what has happened since, it seems obvious. An orchestrated campaign has brought down the government.

For reasons best known to themselves, the opposition to Alkatiri enlisted the support of a group of junior officers in the F-FDTL (the East Timorese defence forces), who broke with the army command and took their weapons with them.

They attacked the F-FDTL on May 23-24, precipitating the widespread unrest in Dili that led to the international forces being called in. Then came the destruction of property by the gangs from the west, mainly aimed at those from the east who are perceived as supporting the Fretilin government. Then a string of allegations was presented to the foreign (mainly Australian) media, which finally led to the prime minister's resignation.

Whoever has been behind this campaign has covered their tracks, and it will be difficult to link the interests involved to the destruction that has resulted in 150,000 East Timorese living in refugee camps, too afraid to go home. The plight of these people was used by opposition groups to call for Alkatiri's removal, even though the same groups had initiated the violence in the first place. It was a callous and cynical political manoeuvre, to say the least.

But some obvious questions have not been answered by the Australian media, who have been almost unanimous in their condemnation of Fretilin, a party that, like it or not, had an overwhelming mandate to govern until mid next year. It won that mandate in elections the UN declared to have been free and fair.

First, who started the violence? In any other country, if a group of disaffected soldiers took off with their weapons and then launched two assaults on the army, as Alfredo Reinado's men did in May, they would surely have been arrested.

Just imagine if a group of Australian soldiers went AWOL on a training exercise in the Northern Territory, for example, and then shot at soldiers pursuing them. They would be thrown in jail at best or shot dead by a tactical response group.

But in this case, Reinado's men were given Australian SAS bodyguards and remain free after handing back only a fraction of the weapons they took with them.

Second, who were these gangs that overwhelmingly targeted the homes of those from the east who were perceived as supporting the Fretilin government? I asked the commander of the Australian forces in East Timor, Brigadier Mick Slater.

"There were definitely groups, let's call them gangs, that were definitely being manipulated and co-ordinated by other people from outside that gang environment. I feel very, very strongly that that was the case," he said.

Even after the resignation of Alkatiri, houses of Fretilin members and those from the east were still being targeted and refugees threatened. It revealed a lot about who had been behind the violence.

Third, who was making the allegations against Alkatiri and did they stand up? After the violence subsided the opposition to Alkatiri seemed to take a different tack.

There were the allegations and rumours of a mass grave with 60, 70, 80 or as many as 500 victims of an Alkatiri-ordered massacre — depending how far down the rumour chain you heard the story.

Some media outlets ran with that story and those of us in Dili tried to follow it up. There was supposed to be a list of dead held by a priest. Then there wasn't, and the story fell by the wayside.

Next were the allegations by the so-called Alkatiri death squad, which Four Corners reported on. Other reporters had been to see this group and some had chosen not to report it.

They were located in the house of the Carrascalao family, but their story didn't seem to be true.

The Carrascalaos are an established family in East Timor, who were instrumental in the UDT party, which fought a brief civil war with Fretilin in 1975. In short, these people have axes to grind.

There were other things about the death-squad allegations that didn't make sense. When the F-FDTL base was attacked on May 24, men from that same group took part in the attack alongside men from Reinado's group. It was an inconsistency picked up by Alkatiri himself, who told me in Dili: "What kind of secret Fretilin group is this that they are also fighting against the FDTL? This is contradictory."

Not surprisingly, this question wasn't asked by those Australian media outlets that had been baying for the prime minister's head since the crisis began, and were terrified by the unanimous condemnation of Alkatiri and afraid to break ranks.

In short, those who had been trying to find East Timorese officers to act against the government look as if they have succeeded, but at the cost of the dislocation of 150,000 Timorese. Surely it would have simply been easier to wait for next year's elections.

John Martinkus has been reporting on East Timor since 1995. His book A Dirty Little War: An eyewitness account of East Timor's descent into hell 1997-2000 was shortlisted for the NSW Premier's Award.
Created by keza
Last modified 2006-07-09 09:50 PM

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