New Internationalist

New nation falters

Issue 391

Army revolt drags elected government into crisis

Timor-leste remains in a state of emergency after widespread gang rioting and conflict between security forces rocked the capital of Dili throughout May. An estimated 100,000 residents fled the looting and burning, and at least 20 people have been killed.

President Xanana Gusmao declared a 30-day state of emergency and assumed central control of the armed forces in an attempt to arrest the crisis. Australian forces have led a multi-national contingent attempting to restore security and disarm factions. Sparking the crisis, the government of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri sacked 591 soldiers – a third of the nation’s military – for striking over claims of regional discrimination and poor working conditions. The poorly handled dispute escalated when attempts to suppress the protesting army descended into gang rioting and lawlessness.

The unrest is a bitter blow for the world’s newest nation, which gained independence after 25 years of violent Indonesian rule in 1999. Emerging from a limited UN stewardship in 2002, the fragile Fretilin government has struggled to govern what is the poorest country in Asia. Unemployment in Dili is over 60 per cent. Life expectancy in the nation is 55 years. This has fuelled the crisis – along with the factionalized nature of the armed forces, a nation scarred by decades of violence, and discontent with Alkatiri’s brash style. At the time this magazine goes to print, Alkatiri is clinging to the title of Prime Minister. While rebel soldiers camped in the mountains surrounding Dili are demanding his removal, ordinary Timorese are left to ponder how this latest wretched chapter in their history will unfold.

Ben Moxham

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