Aussies 'had better go home': Alkatiri ups the stakes in East Timor
The leader of East Timor's largest political party has denounced the Australian troops occupying his country, saying 'they had better go home because they are not neutral'.
Mari Alkatiri, the Secretary-General of the Fretilin party, made his call after Australian troops waded into an anti-government protest held in a village near the East Timorese capital Dili yesterday. The Aussies provoked fury by ripping down two Fretilin flags and wiping their backsides with them. Fretilin led the fight against both the Portugese and the Indonesian occupations of East Timor, and its flag is seen by many Timorese as a symbol of national independence. Fretilin vice-President Arsenio Bano backed up Alatiri's statement, saying that the actions of the troops reflected the 'cultural insensitivity and arrogance [that] typifies Australian military operations in the Pacific region'.
Yesterday's incident came amidst continuing protests against an Australian-backed government that is widely seen as illegitimate. Although it won the largest number of seats in parliamentary elections held last month, Fretilin was snubbed by East Timor's pro-Australian President Jose Ramos-Horta, who invited his close political ally Xanana Gusmao to form a government. Gusmao and Horta's National Congress for Timorese Reconciliation party won only 22% of the vote in the elections, and Gusmao's inauguration as Prime Minister on August the 8th sparked big protests in Dili and in the eastern towns of Baucau and Viqueque.
When the Australian and New Zealand troops and police who comprise the majority of the UN-sponsored 'International Stabilisation Force' tried to shut the protests down rioting broke out. Vehicles carrying Anzacs were stoned, and buildings associated with the UN, the Australian government, and the CNRT were burnt. Ambushers fired shots at a convoy of UN vehicles on a road south of Baucau.
In some places criminal gangs joined in the riots, attacking civilians and churches and looting shops. In Baucau, a gang broke into a convent and raped several girls. The government and its Anzac allies have used the criminals as an excuse to launch a campaign of repression against their political opponents. In the four days after Gusmao's inauguration as Prime Minister, the International Stabilisation Force fired more than two hundred rounds of tear gas at protesters. Dozens of peaceful protesters were arrested for offences like 'blocking the road'.
Comparing protesters to the pro-Indonesian militia that killed hundreds of East Timorese in 1999, Horta and Gusmao have warned that civil servants who take to the streets could lose their jobs. Such a threat carries great weight, in a country where 50% of the population is unemployed and the public sector offers the best hope of well-paid work. The new government has also tried to discourage protesters by insisting that they must apply for a permit to march through public streets a full twenty-one days in advance.
Anzac troops and police have often been accused of using their muscle to interfere in the politics of East Timor. Fretilin complained about Australian harassment of its election workers and candidates during the elections earlier this year, and in February big protests broke out in Dili after Australian soldiers killed two youths who had been demonstrating against the destruction of a refugee camp near the city's airport.
Alkatiri was Prime Minister of East Timor until the middle of last year, when he was forced to resign by the Anzac force that had arrived in his country in the aftermath of rioting that killed thirty-seven people. Alkatiri and other Fretilin leaders have argued that the Australian government stirred up the riots, and then used Anzac troops to force him to relinquish power in favour of Horta.
The left-wing journalist and long-time observer of East Timor John Pilger has backed Alkatiri's claims. Pilger believes that the Howard government wanted a government in Dili which would agree to greater Australian control over the rich oil and gas reserves under the seas off Timor. Alkatiri had angered Canberra and its ally in Washington by playing hardball over the oil reserves, refusing to support Bush's 'War of Terror', and bringing Cuban medics to East Timor. Horta, by contrast, is an outspoken supporter of the invasion of Iraq who calls John Howard a personal friend and has taken a conciliatory attitude in negotiations over oil.
Alkatiri has also found support for his complaints amongst the leaders of some of East Timor's neighbours. Last week, Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare accused Australia of interfering in East Timor's politics, and warned that it was trying similar tricks in his country. The Solomon Islands is saddled with its own Anzac occupation, and its new, independent-minded Prime Minister Manasseh Sogovare has expressed his solidarity with Alkatiri.
Despite his hatred of the Howard government, Alkatiri has never before called so directly for the withdrawal of Australian forces from East Timor. An astute and often cynical political player, he has feared angering those parts of Fretilin who had hoped the occupation could be made to work in the party's interests. Alkatiri's new boldness and the ongoing protests suggest that the mood in Fretilin has turned decisively against accommodation with the occupiers of East Timor. Together, the illegitimate government in Dili and the Anzac troops that support it have alienated large numbers of Timorese. Arsenio Bano summed up the feelings of many when he said yesterday that the Australian government 'has had one overriding aim — the removal of the democratically elected Fretilin government and its replacement with the illegitimate government of Gusmao'.
The ongoing protests in East Timor should be a wake-up call to New Zealanders. Most Kiwis oppose the Howard government and the neo-colonial occupation it is helping George Bush maintain in Iraq, but few realise that their army and police force is helping prop up a similar occupation in East Timor. Kiwi troops and cops operate under Australian control in East Timor, and are supporting a government which is deeply unpopular. It is not surprising, then, that they are being targeted alongside the Australians. They should be withdrawn before they get sucked further into the escalating conflict between Australian imperialism and the East Timorese people.