Sunday, May 21, 2006

Apologising for Alkatiri?


The New Zealand Herald has finally discovered the political crisis in East Timor - yesterday's paper included a long article by Greg Ansley called 'East Timor a nation on a knife edge'. The article is accompanied by the first photo I have seen of the soldiers' protest on the 28th of April (I've reproduced it above this post), and suggests that the leader responsible for the bloody suppression of that protest will cling to his job:

Opponents claim Alkatiri is arrogant, autocratic, confrontational and out of touch, and blame him for the crisis in the Army that led to 594 soldiers - 40 per cent of its strength - being forced from its ranks.

Alkatiri's response put Timor on its latest razor's edge. Lashing out at "hooligans", provocateurs and "destabilising" critics, he threatened to resign as Prime Minister if he was dumped from the Fretilin leadership. His supporters threatened bloodshed if he was rolled by Guterres.

As the Weekend Herald went to press it appeared Alkatiri would survive, following a change from secret ballot to a show of hands for yesterday's vote. His rivals claimed the move would intimidate many of the 571 voting delegates at the Sunrise Convention Centre, especially public servants depending on Government goodwill for their jobs.

Ansley quotes Maire Leadbeater, long-time activist in the Indonesian Human Rights Committee and sister of Green MP Keith Locke, as saying that 'Most newly independent countries that have integrated former resistance fighters into a new, conventional, army have had problems'. If Leadbeater hasn't been misquoted here, then it seems to me that she needs to be taken to task for her words. All the reports from East Timor say that the vast majority of the six hundred or so soldiers who have rebelled against the government are not veterans of Falintil's long struggle against Indonesian occupation but young men who have only been part of the army a relatively short time. Most of them come from the west of the country, a region that was under-represented in Falintil's ranks. The rebels have complained about the domination of the army by former Falintil commanders, about the brutality of their country's police force, and about the poor pay they receive from the Alkatiri government. Every report I have read from East Timor has also emphasised that there is widespread popular support for the rebels, support that was reflected in the thousands of civilians who joined the march through Dili on April the 28th. And surely the massacre that Alkatiri's police perpetrated that day only confirms many of the arguments that the rebel soldiers have been making?

Maire Leadbeater's decades of activism around East Timorese and Indonesian issues must have given her a huge range of contacts, so I find it very hard to believe she would not know about the regional composition of the rebellious soldiers, the nature of their complaints, and the fact that they have received widespread support. Why, then, did she offer the Herald such a misleading explanation for the soldiers' rebellion? And where is her condemnation of the April the 28th massacre? Perhaps I've missed it, but I haven't seen anything from her or the Indonesian Human Rights Committee (if anyone has seen a statement, please put it in the comments boxes here and I'll correct my mistake).

Leadbeater seems to be unwilling to face the fact that a popular uprising has broken out against the Fretilin leaders she has supported for so long. Admitting that East Timor is on the brink of civil war, and not just experiencing post-independence teething problems, might force Leadbeater to re-examine her support for the 1999 military intervention in East Timor. That operation was supposed to deliver East Timor into a new era of peace and democracy; what if, six and a half years on, such an era has failed to materialise? What if the tiny minority of the Australasian left that argued that intervention would lead East Timor down a dead end road were right? What if Keith and his mates in the Aussie branch of the Khaki Greens are wrong when they say that Australasian troops need to be brought home from Iraq and Afghanistan so that they can be available to reoccupy East Timor?

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