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Conspiracy theory haunts East Timor

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When Dili burned, Australia rushed to help. But was Mari Alkatiri's ouster the culmination of an orchestrated campaign, ask Mark Dodd and Jakarta correspondent Stephen Fitzpatrick

July 15, 2006

ON his first day in office this week, East Timor's new Prime Minister Jose Ramos Horta accepted a cache of illegal weapons from a former soldier, Vincente "Railos" da Conceicao.

Conceicao had become something of a household name as the man who fingered East Timor's former interior minister for allegedly arming hit squads to target enemies of former prime minister Mari Alkatiri, a claim that ultimately helped force Alkatiri out.

Conceicao handed over 11 Heckler and Koch submachine guns to Australian troops. But no ammunition was surrendered and the rebel and his colleagues walked away still armed with stolen police-issue Glock 9mm pistols tucked in their pants.

It was a piece of theatre that threw up more questions than answers about East Timor's low-rent version of a people power uprising.

Claims of hit squads, foreign conspiracies, missing guns and bodies all underscore the murky nature of East Timor's crisis, a political quagmire that sucked in a reluctant Canberra as rioting and violence erupted through Dili, forcing residents into refugee camps as their homes were burned.

The political demise of Alkatiri was, for the most part, self-inflicted, a legacy of a leader and an administration increasingly out of touch with its grassroots. But was it an internal coup?

Certainly Alkatiri's old enemy President Xanana Gusmao and his ally of convenience Ramos Horta displayed deft political footwork. And the flames of discontent surrounding Alkatiri were given oxygen by some timely revelations from the Australian media and almost nightly appearances by Ramos Horta on the ABC's Lateline, a program Alkatiri snubbed several times.

The events that sealed Alkatiri's political fate began on January 11 with a protest about regional discrimination by a group of soldiers born in the western region. Alkatiri quickly lost control, leaving the government paralysed, Dili in flames, ethnic cleansing in the suburbs and more than 30 killed, 150,000 people displaced and the country on the brink of civil war.

Calm was only restored with the arrival of an Australian-led force in May.

Behind the events lies a shadowy assortment of self-proclaimed patriots. Their close links with the President and their role in the political vacuum finally tipped the scales against Alkatiri.

Amid calls for calm by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a desperate fight for political supremacy was waged between Gusmao and Alkatiri. Alkatiri issued a statement on May 27 trying to make out he was still in charge.

"The international forces have been receiving instructions from the government," he said. "At no time has the government ceased to work.

"What is in motion is an attempt to stage a coup d'etat."

But first blood went to Gusmao, who invoked emergency powers and stripped the prime minister of his authority. He wanted to sack him but was advised that would need the full support of his Council of State.

Alkatiri clung to power for three more weeks before finally caving in on June 26, five days after receiving another presidential demand to resign, this time accompanied by a video copy of ABC allegations that he had supported the arming of civilians.

There is no doubt Alkatari, a Muslim not trusted by many in the predominantly Catholic country, and Gusmao, worshipped as a national hero for his role with the gun and then diplomacy in winning the country its independence, do not like each other.

But whether there was an organised conspiracy to depose Alkatiri -- possibly with Canberra's blessing -- is unclear.

Certainly, Australian ministers have striven to avoid the appearance of taking sides, despite heeding the plea from Ramos Horta and Gusmao for peacekeeping troops that was, in effect, a rebuke to Alkatiri and his government. Portugal, East Timor's formal colonial ruler and a close friend of Alkatiri, last month all but accused Australia of trying to interfere, offering a stark warning.

"Australia should not get involved in the domestic affairs of East Timor. Neither Australia, nor Portugal," Portugal's foreign minister Diego Freitas do Amaral said five days before he resigned.

Conceicao and his hit squad appear to be pivotal to the entire question of whether there were secret forces working against Alkatiri. Before he stepped into the limelight during an ABC Four Corners program last month, few East Timorese had heard of Conceicao. His startling claim that he and his ex-guerilla cohorts had been armed and trained with the knowledge of Alkatiri and then-interior minister Rogerio Lobato effectively cruelled Alkatiri's chances of hanging on through the crisis.

Sitting on the shady veranda of his Liquica home this week, the rebel leader tells Inquirer that he and two deputies, Mateus "Rakat" dos Santos Pereira and Liandro "Grey" Lobato, were taken by Rogerio Lobato to meet Alkatiri at the latter's house on May 8. Liandro Lobato is a village head in Liquica district.

Conceicao says the 30-minute meeting in the upmarket Dili suburb of Farol was largely a test, for Alkatiri to decide whether he trusted the group with the "security" task Lobato had set them the previous day. "We talked mostly about the current political situation in East Timor," says Conceicao, who is a member of Alkatiri's Fretilin party.

They discussed overcoming opposition in East Timor to Alkatiri and how this could be done.

"Towards the end he said, 'The President must not know and police chief Paulo Martins must not know. This is top secret,"' Conceicao claims.

Conceicao and his two lieutenants concur on the detail of this last statement, and Conceicao adds: "Anyone who says Paulo Martins is responsible for this is wrong. He is not the one who allowed the police weapons to disappear." Rogerio Lobato, he alleges, bore that responsibility. Lobato has been under house arrest since last month and, according to prosecutor-general Longhuinos Monteiro, may have implicated Alkatiri in the scandal.

Conceicao says he accepted the task "because there was no option not to, but also because I wanted to see how far he was prepared to go".

He says it was a clash on May 24 with national defence force (F-FDTL) soldiers at Tibar, just west of Dili, resulting in the loss of four lives, that made him decide it was time to go public with what he had been asked to do.

Interestingly, all sides blame this particular encounter for the sharp deterioration of affairs over the next day or so, including the massacre of 12 unarmed policemen in Dili by F-FDTL soldiers on May 25.

"It was because the F-FDTL, when they saw the dead members of the Railos group were carrying PNTL (police) rifles, decided to get revenge," Ramos Horta said this week. "They thought they were being attacked by PNTL."

Other key players have explained events the same way.

Conceicao is a former Falintil guerilla commander who has the devotion of his men. His colleagues Liandro Lobato and Pereira, when asked whether they felt they had an option not to join in the hit-squad plan, dismissed the idea. "Our decision was to support Railos," says Pereira, who describes himself as an entrepreneur with interests in construction.

"Whatever he decides to do, we follow."

Conceicao says he joined the regular army after Indonesia left East Timor in 1999, but retired in 2004 "because I didn't like the discipline". He took up farming -- mostly rice, vegetables and coffee -- around Liquica.

"But I have the support of everyone around here. I could get 1000, 2000 people together if I wanted," he boasts.

Asked again why a retired soldier such as himself had accepted a recall to active duty, he tenses up, then laughs when Liandro Lobato answers: "To get weapons."

"Yes, to get weapons," Conceicao says. "And because I knew there were other groups who had weapons.

"They were already in the game."

Conceicao says he had no details of other armed hit squads, adding: "As far as I know, I was the last to be brought in."

But there are several inconsistencies in his account of events. What also remains unexplained in the episode is Conceicao's presence at Gusmao's home for several hours three weeks ago. It was on a Saturday when, according to Gusmao aide Agio Pereira, local citizens had unexpectedly telephoned to say they wanted to hand in some police rifles "to show their support for the President".

Conceicao was at that point still making his claims about the hit-squad assignment, demanding that he be allowed to surrender his rifles as "evidence" directly to Gusmao, and requesting armed protection because he feared being targeted by other hit-squad leaders.

However, drinking small cups of rich dark coffee on the President's neat front lawn, and joking with the former guerilla commander about developments in East Timor, Conceicao didn't look anything like a man in fear for his life.

Along with his former ally, Rogerio Lobato, Alkatiri now faces the prospect of court action over his alleged involvement in arming civilian gangs, although he strongly denies the claims.

He maintains he was the victim of a coup but has failed to produce any evidence to back his claim. Certainly, Gusmao and Ramos Horta were able to tweak events to their advantage after the arrival of Australian brigadier Mick Slater's peacekeepers.

By then Alkatiri had been terminally damaged. His decision to not appear on several promised TV interviews on ABC allowed Ramos Horta to monopolise the Australian media, helping to strengthen his leadership credentials. The Australian army's top commander in Dili rejects any charges of favouritism vis-a-visTimorese politicians, despite claims by one commentator who queried the decision by Australian troops to provide rebel leader Alfredo Reinado with a bodyguard instead of arresting him. A Special Air Service bodyguard had been provided to Alkatiri long before similar protection was offered to Reinado.

Army spokesman James Baker says the protection "cut both ways". It allowed the Australian Defence Force to ensure both men stayed neutral.

So, what other factors contributed to Alkatiri's demise? It is tempting to believe he and his factional allies in Fretilin were eyeing a pot of black gold, a steadily accruing $600million account in New York, as a handy petro-dollar war chest that would help them fight the May national elections.

His four years at the helm were characterised by an increasingly autocratic trend, according to critics, who say they faced muzzling by defamation laws that breached constitutional guarantees of free speech.

Alkatiri provided patronage for close family and party business interests, especially those of his brother Bader, who was given a monopoly weapons contract last year, sidestepping any parliamentary consent. Another brother, Ahmed, prospered from lucrative government construction contracts along with close political ally Oscar Lima.

Ordinary East Timorese, most of whom live in total poverty, were all too aware of the issue and so was the World Bank.

"Alkatiri had some competence as an administrator and was a successful negotiator, but he wasn't a popular politician," says a senior Western diplomat in Dili, who asked not to be named. "He didn't talk to people. He was certainly aloof."

Perhaps one of the most compelling, yet least acknowledged, examples of how much his own support had eroded within Fretilin came during a challenge to his leadership last May. Disagreeing with what she believed was an undemocratic ballot, Ana Pessoa -- a deputy prime minister and staunch Alkatiri loyalist for five years -- abstained from voting. Despite his claims of outside interference, it was a sign Alkatiri was losing support from his greatest power base.

Ramos Horta has vowed a new era of peace and stability. That promise is likely to be sorely tested in the months ahead. Hundreds of stolen and looted weapons from the police paramilitary units remain unaccounted for, including large stocks of ammunition.

Slater says the population in Dili is still very nervous and Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd says it is too soon to be talking of pulling out the troops. The real losers are the more than 150,000 people displaced by the recent violence, living in squalid, temporary reception camps. Aid agencies are warning they should not become permanent fixtures.

"There are no longer any good guys," says one senior Dili-based UN official. "You used to be able to paint the pro-independence side as angels and the pro-Jakarta militia as evil. They've all got dirt on their hands after this."

Created by anita
Last modified 2006-07-22 07:16 AM

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