Is Xanana Gusmao staging a coup?
Yet Gusmao's move is an extraordinary one which demands our scrutiny. His post as President of East Timor is largely symbolic, and although the country's constitution calls him 'Supreme Commander of the country's defence force' and gives him the right to declare war he has never before attempted to exercise control over the army, let alone the police. Gusmao's attempt to gain control of these forces can thus been seen as a direct challenge not only to Alkatiri but to the constitution, at least it has been commonly interpreted in East Timor. It might not be going too far to say that, by unilaterally asking East Timor's security forces to disregard Alkatiri's authority and recognise his own, Gusmao is effectively attempting to stage a coup.
What is behind Gusmao's move? It is no secret that he has long been a bitter rival of his fellow Fretilin member Alkatiri, and reports suggest their rivalry has been reflected by the formation of well-organised factions within Fretilin and also within both the police and the army. When East Timor's constitution was being written in 2001 Gusmao and his close ally Jose Ramos-Horta clashed with Alkatiri over the powers that the new country's President ought to have. Alkatiri's view that the office of President should be largely symbolic prevailed.
Since then, Gusmao and Alkatiri have clashed over a number of issues, including Alkatiri's attempts to end religious instruction in schools and his opposition to World Bank loans. Gusmao attended the founding meeting of the Social Democratic Party, a centrist breakaway from Fretilin, and has often spoken in support of that party's six members of parliament against the policies of Fretilin. Many commentators have been puzzled by the relatively low profile that Gusmao has maintained during the soldiers' rebellion; some have suggested that he has been reluctant to boost Alkatiri by brokering a peace deal. At the recent Fretilin congress in Dili Alkatiri saw off a challenge for the post of party leader (and, effectively, Prime Minister) by East Timor's ambassador to the United Nations, who is a close ally of Gusmao and Ramos-Horta.
Now it appears that Gusmao has chosen to confront Alkatiri's authority head on, by attempting to seize control of East Timor's disintegrating army and police force. It remains to be seen whether he will be able to stamp his authority on forces that are bitterly antagonistic to each other and riven internally by an east-west regional divide as well as political divisions. Yesterday an array of factions of the army and the police fought battles in and around Dili; in one incident soldiers killed nine policemen who were seeking refuge in the city's UN compound.
One source that will not be surprised by Gusmao's power bid is the World Socialist Website. The WSWS, which has established a reputation on the left as an authority on East Timorese affairs, produced an article yesterday which claimed that Australia was backing a bid by Gusmao and Ramos-Horta to depose Alkatiri. Observing that Alfredo Reinaldo, a leader of some of the rebellious soldiers, was trained in Australia and favours the intervention of foreign troops in East Timor, the WSWS argues that the instability of recent weeks has been orchestrated by Canberra in an attempt to bring Alkatiri to his knees. The WSWS argues that Australia wants to get rid of Alkatiri because he has attempted to lessen East Timor's dependence on Canberra, confront John Howard over his country's exploitation of Timor Strait gas and oil reserves, and establish closer economic ties with Europe and China.
It is certainly true that Reinaldo has urged the intervention of foreign forces in East Timor, and that some Australian newspapers close to the Howard government have been critical of Alkatiri, but I wonder whether WSWS's analysis is not a little one-sided. For one thing, it ignores the fact that Reinaldo leads a small group of military policemen who only joined the rebel soldiers after April the 28th, when the mutiny against Alkatiri had already been underway for more than a month. Reinaldo does not claim to speak for all the rebels; in fact, he has warned Australia to beware of rebel groups other than his own. I also wonder whether it is credible to suggest that the Howard government would be prepared to provoke all the chaos we have seen in East Timor, and the attendant threat to Australian business intetests, diplomatic personnel and now soldiers, in exchange for reversing Alkatiri's very modest attempts to become more independent of Canberra. Alkatiri is hardly a communist.
Perhaps there is a danger, though, of trying to make analyses of events in East Timor too static, and forgetting that the key players in this drama are not bound to pursue the same strategies indefinitely. In 1999 Australia's Democratic Socialist Party made this sort of mistake when it decided that John Howard would never intervene in East Timor, and thus allowed itself to call for an intervention in order to 'expose' him. Of course, Howard was able to change tack and use intervention as a means of securing Australian control of East Timor's resources when public opinion and events on the ground made such a strategy preferable to non-intervention. Perhaps now that East Timor has slid into chaos and civil war Howard's government sees nothing to lose in backing the ouster of Alkatiri. Those of us who have been critical of the Alkatiri government should certainly beware of falling into the trap of welcoming anything that replaces it as automatically progressive.
Update: Gusmao's wife has given an interview in which she defends her husband's move to take control of the armed forces, and also claims he is in control of the international troops arriving in Dili. She concedes that Prime Minister Alkatiri is less than chuffed with the attempt to take control of the forces from him.