Timor in Crisis

*Carole Reckinger* and *Sara Gonzalez Devant* find rumour, intrigue and the demise of a key player in Timor-Leste’s latest crisis.

Timor-Leste’s (East Timor) President Jose Ramos-Horta was shot on 11 February by rebel soldiers in front of his idyllic home in the outskirts of Dili. It appears that he was attacked by a group of renegade soldiers. The President is in a ‘critical but stable’ condition, and he has been airlifted to Australia for further treatment. This incident is shocking, but shows how unstable the situation in Timor-Leste still is. The ‘crisis’ that started in 2006 is far from over, and Timor-Leste’s security forces are unable to provide security – even to the President himself. Once again, foreign troops and resources have been pledged to restore stability and development in the country.

The turmoil is a result of a complex political reality, and a society fractious and weary after achieving the goal of independence. The attempted assassination of the President and Prime Minister earlier this week must therefore be put into context.

No present without a past

In May 2005, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, in a speech marking the end of the UN peace-keeping operation in Timor-Leste, declared that the peacekeepers’ departure showed the world’s recognition of Timor as a safe and peaceful country, whose security agencies were able to take responsibility for its internal and external security. The outbreak of violence that started a year later sharply illustrates that this assessment was decidedly over-optimistic. In April 2006, the capital, Dili, went up in flames after the dismissal of 600 soldiers – nearly one third of the military – who protested against discrimination within the ranks of the newly formed Timorese army. The initially peaceful protest culminated in the death of at least 37 people and the displacement of two-thirds of the capital’s residents. General frustration with the Government’s failure to alleviate high unemployment and corruption – combined with objections to their response to turmoil in the defense force – encouraged numerous East Timorese to take up arms and join armed groups. Violent gangs of mostly unemployed youths joined the disaffected soldiers, roaming the streets of Dili, burning down houses and torching cars. Some members of the police force defected to join the dismissed soldiers, known as ‘the petitioners’, and openly confronted the military. Lethal clashes between elements of the national police force (PNTL) and the military (F-FDTL) were followed by widespread rioting and looting in the capital. Law and order broke down and within days the leadership of PNTL disintegrated.

Both the PNTL and the F-FDTL are not perceived to have the trust of the population or the capacity to provide adequate security and order. Past behaviour of some PNTL members while on duty reduced public confidence in the institution: some police members have been involved in sexual harassment, human rights violations, illegal weapons distribution and black market activities. The PNTL has been accused by a Human Rights Watch report of gross human rights violations and ‘police abuse has become one of East Timor’s most worrying human rights problems.’ Moreover, neither organisation is regarded as politically neutral.

Until the election in the summer of 2007, the F-FDTL fell under the control of President Gusmão – a former guerilla leader – while the PNTL reported to Rogerio Lobato who was a staunch Fretilin man – a long term rival of Gusmão, and also regarded as a liability by many within the party. The internal divisions within the leadership date back to the civil war and the Indonesian occupation.

The events of 11 February have been shocking and tragic for, above all, the Timorese people themselves. Observers must portray the situation in its full complexity.

Both institutions became internally fragmented due to their mixture of members from different regions and political backgrounds. Though ethnic and regional divisions had not previously been prominent in Timor-Leste, the April 2006 dispute had a significant regional component, and such affiliations quickly gained currency. Most of ‘the petitioners’ came from the West of the country and complained that they suffered discrimination in a force dominated by officers from the East (reflecting the force’s origins in the eastern-based, pre-independence, anti-Indonesian, armed resistance movement). A similar scenario could be observed in the police force, where some members served under the former Indonesian police – mainly from the West – while others were former members of the armed resistance – mainly from the East.

Almost 70% of disciplinary cases within the military resulted from confrontations with police personnel, many of whom were recruits from the former local Indonesian police force.1 The problem culminated in a massacre in late May 2006, when F-FDTL soldiers killed 10 unarmed police officers under UN protection. Regional tensions affected not only the security forces, but increasingly Timorese civilians who identified themselves with either the East or West. Violent groups of youths from different parts of the country took advantage of the situation and made street-fighting a regular occurrence in Dili. A catholic priest described the situation as ‘East against West, soldiers against soldiers, police against soldiers, everyone against everyone … It's total madness.’2

In the midst of the chaos, after a request from the Timorese government, Australia formed a multinational peacekeeping force to restore order in late May 2006. The removal of the Fretilin-led government and the subsequent electoral victory of the new government led by Xanana Gusmao took place under the guardianship of a United Nations-authorized Australian and New Zealand International Stabilisation Force (ISF). Up until the attempted coup, there were approximately a thousand international military personnel and 1,500 members of the United Nations police in Timor-Leste. Fresh troops from Australia have arrived in Dili.

Major Alfredo, the romantic?

Amidst the generalized mistrust of institutions that were meant to provide security and a leadership that was meant to honour the constitution, certain individuals became popular symbols among the population. Major Alfredo Reinaldo became a crucial figure at the time of the crisis. He led a group of military personnel and members of other security forces out of Dili. There, the Major and his men pledged allegiance to Xanana and Major Alfredo’s role in the crisis became both ambiguous and iconic over time. The Major became a symbol of the disenfranchised – the youth, the poor, veterans – and he became key to balancing peace in East Timor. The Major was arrested in 2006, but escaped from Becora prison, downtown Dili, together with 56 other inmates, and later boasted in an interview that he waved at New Zealand soldiers as he left. Reinaldo stayed in hiding, and calls for him to submit himself to justice failed. He remained defiant, and after his men raided weapons from a police post in March 2007, President Xanana Gusmao sanctioned an Australian operation to capture him. The operation in Same resulted in several deaths, but Reinaldo eluded the Australian operation and his popularity grew among Dili youths. Reinaldo was able to accept the projected hopes of many of those for whom independence brought more disappointment and poverty. The youth in particular had become increasingly frustrated by the lack of government response. Combined with boredom, lack of opportunities for constructive activity and extensive alcohol abuse, Dili’s unemployment rate of a staggering 70 per cent contributes to the volatile situation.

Major Reinaldo was a liability, but he was also bold and charismatic. His defiant messages to the authorities and vanishing acts made him a romantic figure that resonated with a generation that had lost its heroes. Filmmaker Max Stahl likened him to East Timor’s ‘Che Guevara’: ‘A poster figure on laptops, and graffiti sketches around Dili’ and, ‘like a poster character, the meaning of his protest shifted its ground.’

While most media reports have been quick to qualify the assassination attempt as a coup, other are more cautious. James Dunne, for example: ‘Clearly, there is more to this than meets the eye and we need to know a lot more about it,’ adding that: ‘As a coup, it was a very unlikely coup, totally botched and certainly one not in keeping with somebody who served as a Major.’ Stahl suggests that one possibility is that the assassination attempt was a desperate measure after 77 of the petitioners were reinstated in the army last week. Perhaps he feared losing his position of being a key figure in the balance of maintaining peace in Timor-Leste.

...high unemployment, widespread poverty, and pervasive trauma provide the fertile ground that allowed what could have been a manageable protest to explode into protracted violence.

At this point, it is too early to tell. However, a final reflection on the role of Major Alfredo in Timorese society and the political scene as it is perceived by the population, may perhaps be provided by the rumours that have circulated in Dili in the hours after the attack. Rumour is often cited by observers to play a conspicuous role in crises, particularly in East Timor. Although it is impossible to compile rumours at any given time, at the early stages of an emergency there is little reliable information circulating, and rumours become the common ‘knowledge currency’. One blogger writes: ‘Usually, the unconfirmed stories are about 90 per cent correct but that 10 per cent error can affect conclusions by 100 per cent. Some local media were reporting that the President had died which everyone seems to agree is not the case. It is rarely straightforward here.’3 These forms of misinformation may say more about the situation than is commonly assumed.

Some bloggers may provide the key to understanding the situation in East Timor better than media reports that are more readily available. A blogger on xananarepublic.blogspot.com cites Radio Timor-Leste reporting that Major Alfredo was in fact staying as a guest in the President’s home. Ramos-Horta is known in Dili to house guests on a regular basis. This, if true, would prove not only ironic but incongruous with most portrayals of the ‘renegade Major’. If proved untrue, it still shows that the Major was perceived, not as a man on the margins of the Timorese political scene but as an essential part of it. This is a perception that does not always transpire in the international media.

In fact, Timorese authorities had been negotiating with a sometimes co-operative Alfredo, from the beginning of the 2006 crisis. Although he had become increasingly defiant and uncooperative, the authorities had decided that it was best to engage him in dialogue. On Tuesday the Australian Foreign Minister acknowledged that the President and Prime Minister of East Timor had requested that the International Stabilization Forces halt the hunt for Alfredo nine months ago, and that the best way forward had been deemed to engage Major Alfredo in dialogue.4

In a country with many heroes, and one great enemy (the Indonesian occupier and its stooges), it is difficult for outside observers to let go of eternal heroes, and to submit to the confusing reality of the Timorese political scene today. The events of 11 February have been shocking and tragic for, above all, the Timorese people themselves. Observers must portray the situation in its full complexity.

The problems Timor-Leste faces are numerous and multidimensional. The final report of the Commission for Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation in Timor-Leste warned that ‘the deep divisions in our society from 25 years of conflict, and the violence which entered East Timorese political life in 1975, remain a potential stumbling block to the development of a sustainable culture of democracy and peace in Timor-Leste.’5 These factors, combined with very high unemployment, widespread poverty, and pervasive trauma provide the fertile ground that allowed what could have been a manageable protest to explode into protracted violence. The turmoil that has afflicted the country in recent years has put additional layers of complexity in the Timorese reality.

  1. International Institute for Strategic Studies (The), 2006, 'Turmoil in Timor-Leste: Nation-building unravels'.
  2. Barker, Anne, 2006, '"Total madness" as gangs fight in Dili', _ABC Australia_ news Saturday, May 27, 2006
  3. http://wombathole.com/dili-gence/
  4. www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2008/02/12/2160982.htm
  5. Commission for Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation Timor-Leste (CAVR), 2005, 'Chega! The Report of the Commission for Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation Timor-Leste'.

*Sara Gonzalez Devant* is a freelance writer and worked in Timor-Leste between 2005-2006 with a Timorese NGO and for the National Disasters Management Office. Her dissertation 'Displacement in the 2006 Dili Conflict: Dynamics of an Ongoing Conflict' won the Prize for best dissertation 2006-2007 at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford. The paper is published as a Refugee Studies Centre Working Paper (January 2008 WP45). email:

*Carole Reckinger* is a freelance writer and worked in Timor between 2005-2006. She has travelled widely in Asia and has worked on a number of research projects. email:

You can read more from them at: http://1000forgottenstories.wordpress.com/