MORE THAN 2,000 foreign troops, including 120 officers from the GNR, have arrived in the former Portuguese colony of East Timor to quell growing unrest that has resulted in more than 20 deaths.
Portuguese Prime Minister, José Sócrates, said he was sending the troops as “a gesture of solidarity” with the population who declared their independence from Indonesia in 2002. The move followed escalating violence in Dili, the capital of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation that lies off the northwest tip of Australia.
Unrest in East Timor began in March, when Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri, sacked 600 soldiers – 40 per cent of the total armed forces – after they protested over alleged discrimination against soldiers from the west of the country. The army was created from the armed resistance force, Falintil, which earned mythical status for its long struggle against the Indonesian occupation. But, post-independence, the army found difficulty in adapting to its peacetime role. In the end, it divided into internecine camps with rivalries between different commanders and regions.
Rioters included children
Sporadic attacks between the two sides then descended into all-out street violence as rival gangs, armed with machetes, slingshots, and bows and arrows, rampaged through the capital, torching buildings and ransacking offices. The violence left several shops, once part of a vibrant commercial district, reduced to burnt out shells. Many of the rioters included children, helping themselves to supplies. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people have fled Dili and moved into makeshift camps.
President Xanana Gusmão, the former guerrilla leader who is now President of East Timor, has assumed emergency powers, taking control of the army to curb growing lawlessness. But Gusmão, still considered the hero of his country’s liberation struggle, has so far resisted calls to sack Prime Minister Alkatiri. Instead, he announced that he had taken emergency control in “close collaboration” with his political rival.
Alkatiri recently hinted that President Gusmão was using the recent unrest to oust him from office. Street demonstrators have petitioned for Alkatiri’s dismissal outside the presidential palace and people queuing for food in the city centre have blamed his government’s inaction for their suffering.
Sócrates says move will
prevent “loss of control”
Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia, as well as Portugal, have sent troops to Dili in a bid to restore order. Portugal’s Minister of State, Ana Pessoa, announced that the move was designed to prevent further chaos. “The government doesn’t want to take the risk that the situation will worsen further and that it will lose total control,” she said.
A civilian aircraft left Portugal last week, carrying 114 GNR officers and three members of the National Institute of Emergency Medicine (INEM). Another three officers from the GNR are already in East Timor.
Spokespersons from all branches of the armed forces also confirmed that reinforcements were available if the President requested them. An army spokesman guaranteed that the service has a rapid reaction force ready to intervene in any theatre of operations abroad. Apparently, the government had decided to send GNR soldiers instead because, according to the internal ministry, East Timor had specifically requested them.
Guterres says violence
Former Portuguese Prime Minister, António Guterres, the current United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said that there was an air of inevitability about the emergency in East Timor. “A country so lacking in resources would have to face up to a crisis sooner or later,” he said. But he expressed “full confidence in Timorese democracy and its elected representatives to find a solution” to the unrest.
For a quarter of a century, Portuguese diplomats had repeatedly pressed the United Nations and the European Union to oppose the Indonesian presence in East Timor. Portugal has always felt a measure of responsibility over its treatment of East Timor, following its abandonment of the territory (as well as other colonies) in the aftermath of the 1974 Revolution.
Shortly after the Portuguese withdrawal, tens of thousands of Timorese were killed by Indonesian soldiers or died from disease and starvation. In the ensuing 25 years, more than 2,000 East Timorese, predominantly Portuguese-speaking Roman Catholics, made a new home in Portugal.
Independence from Indonesia in 2002 brought high hopes for the future, but also unrealistically high expectations. East Timor, the poorest country in Asia, has an unemployment rate of 40 per cent. Most of its 800,000 people depend on subsistence farming and fishing for a living, and one in three households live below the poverty line.
By Gabriel Hershman