Three years ago, I wrote a piece talking about attempts to oust Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri in East Timor, then a new struggling independent nation. I wrote that I believed the US and Australia were determined to oust the Timorese leader, due to his hardline stance on oil and gas, his determination not to take out international loans, and their desire to see Australia friendly President Xanana Gusmao take power.
Three years later, I am unhappy to say that the events I have predicted are currently taking shape. The patriotic Australia media, that has unquestionably fallen into line over every part of John Howard’s Pacific agenda – including the Solomon’s excursion – is now trumpeting the ousting of Alkatiri, a man who has gamely defied Australia’s claims over it’s oil and gas, many of the paper’s foreign editors clearly more in tune with the exhortations of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade than the sentiments among Timorese.
I arrived in Dili just as the first riots broke out on April 28 this year- and as an eyewitness at the front of the unrest, the very young soldiers seemed to have outside help – believed to be local politicians and ‘outsiders’. Most onlookers cited the ability of the dissident soldiers to go from an unarmed vocal group, to hundreds brandishing sticks and weapons, as raising locals’ suspicions that this was not an ‘organic’ protest. I interviewed many people – from Fretlin insiders, to opposition politicians and local journalists – and not one ruled out the fact that the riots had been hijacked for ‘other’ purposes. The Prime Minister himself stated so. In a speech on the 7th of May, he called it a coup – and said that ‘foreigners and outsiders’ were trying once again to divide the nation. I reported this for ABC Radio – and was asked if I had the translation wrong. I patiently explained no – we had carefully gone through the speech word for word, and anyone with any knowledge of Timorese politics would understand that is precisely what the Prime Minister meant. No other media had bothered to go to the event – the Australian media preferring to hang out with the rebel soldiers or Australian diplomats that all wanted Alkatiri ‘gone’.
Since his election, Alkatiri had sidelined the most important figure in Timorese politics – President Xanana Gusmao – and the tension between the two has been readily apparent. Alkatiri, has a different view to Gusmao about how the country’s development should take place – slowly, without ‘rich men feasting behind doors’ was the way he described it to me, a steady structure of development the way to develop a truly independent nation. His ability to defend Timor’s oil and gas interests against an aggressive Australia and powerful business interests, and his development of a Petroleum Fund to protect Timor’s oil money from future corruption never accorded with the caricature created by his Australian and American detractors of a ‘corrupt dictator.’
The campaign to oust Alkatiri began at least four years ago – I recorded the date after an American official started leaking me stories of Alkatiri’s corruption while I was freelancing for ABC Radio. I investigated the claims – and came up with nought – but was more concerned with the tenor of criticism by American and Australian officials that clearly suggested that they were wanting to get rid of this ‘troublesome’ Prime Minister. Like Somare, he was not doing things their way. After interviewing the major political leaders – it was clear that many would stop at nothing to get rid of Timor’s first Prime Minister. President Xanana Gusmao, three years ago, did not rule out dissolving parliament and forming a ‘national unity government’.
Gusmao and his supporters (including Jose Ramos-Horta) have privately called Alkatiri an ‘Angolan communist’ with his idea of slow paced development not something Gusmao and his Australian supporters agree with. Other than that, it is hard to work out why President Gusmao would allow forces to unconstitutionally remove this Prime Minister. In Timor, many see Gusmao at fault here, for disagreeing with the Prime Minister over the sacking of the soldiers (it should have been resolved in private) while others see him as the architect of the whole fiasco, his frustration with his limited political role allowing him to be convinced by his Australian advisors to embark on a needlessly bloody coup.
In the last few days we have heard from young Timorese writers currently at the Sydney Writer’s Festival. They have a different take from the Australian media on what is happening in Timor. Take this quote by one young writer:
‘Ã¢€¦ it is suspicious and questionable. It is difficult to analyse why Australia wants to go there. I think it is driven by concerns over Australia’s economic security, including the oil under the sea, rather than concern for the people of East Timor. ‘I am scared it is less about East Timor’s security than Australia’s security and interests.’
Gil Gutteres, the head of Timor’s journalists association TILJA similarly last month said old style fears of communism, and economic interests of Australia were driving the anti-Alkatiri campaign, and were behind the violence. In fact, there is hardly a person in Timor that doesn’t understand that this is about big politics – helped by internal figures wanting to control the oil and gas pie.
And yet the Australian press is full of ‘our boys’ doing us proud. This does not equate with sentiment on the ground, or answer the question as to where the rebel forces could have received support for this foolhardy campaign that has led to many Timorese being frightened, distressed and homeless.
Just this evening, witnesses spoke of Australian army personnel standing by while militia fired on a church in Belide. During the early violence, not one UN soldier intervened to stop the small band of rioters, and the recent actions of the Australian troops add fuel to speculation that they are letting Timor burn.
Alkatiri, for his part is refusing to step aside, saying that only Fretlin, his party, can ask him to resign. If he does go, the Timorese have the Australian media to thank for their unquestioning support of this coup. Perhaps they can explain to the starving citizens (that were already ignored by Australia for 25 years) why Australia now controls their oil and gas. More importantly, the politicians in Timor that have been party to the violence will have to explain to the people their involvement in this latest chapter of its traumatic history.
Maryann Keady is an Australian radio producer and journalist who has reported from Dili since 2002. She is currently a professional associate at Columbia University’s Weatherhead Institute looking at US Foreign Policy and China.