East Timor Braces for Potential Crisis Following Assassination Attempt on President Jose Ramos-Horta

Timorese U.S. envoy Constancio Pinto and veteran journalist Allan Nairn join us to talk about the latest crisis in East Timor. President Jose Ramos-Horta is recovering from gunshot wounds following an attempt on his life. The situation on the ground has remained calm, but East Timor’s complex internal conflicts remain unresolved, opening the door to future turmoil. [includes rush transcript]

Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd flew to East Timor on Friday to pledge support after an assassination attempt on the country’s president, Jose Ramos-Horta. In a three-hour visit, Rudd held talks with Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, who narrowly escaped injury when gunmen ambushed his car on Monday. Rudd later flew to the northern Australia city of Darwin to visit Ramos-Horta, who is recovering in hospital from gunshot wounds.

The situation in East Timor has remained calm since Monday, despite fears of protests. A state of emergency declared by Prime Minister Gusmao remains in place. Gusmao was unharmed in the attacks, but rebel leader Alfredo Reinado was killed in the gunfight at Ramos-Horta’s house.

The man who claims to have taken command of rebel soldiers after Reinado’s death, former army lieutenant Gastao Salsinha, told Reuters his supporters would fight if attacked by international forces. Australia has a thousand troops in East Timor, alongside 1,600 United Nations police. East Timor’s prosecutor-general has issued several arrest warrants in connection with the attacks

AMY GOODMAN: Constancio Pinto is the charge d’affaires at the Timorese embassy in the United States, joining us now from Washington, D.C. We’re also joined on the phone by Allan Nairn, journalist and activist, who has covered East Timor for years.

Constancio Pinto, first, our condolences just on the tragedy in your country, just the shooting, although, of course, Jose Ramos-Horta is alive. What is his condition in the Australian hospital?

CONSTANCIO PINTO: Well, based on the latest information, he is recovering. He had the fourth operation yesterday, I think. But the doctors are satisfied with the progress, so it’s good news. And the doctor is saying that he will need a couple of weeks, six weeks or so, for him to get out from the induced coma and also six months or so to be recovered. But this is just a speculation, but I think it’s good, in good condition, and it’s a good news for us, for East Timorese people.

AMY GOODMAN: Constancio Pinto, can you explain what you understand happened on Monday morning in East Timor?

CONSTANCIO PINTO: Well, I was out of home when I got the phone call from my colleague here in Washington saying that the president was attacked, and that was morning there. And I was surprised that he was attacked, he was wounded. And then, later on, we also heard that the president, Xanana—Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao was also attacked on his way to work. So, to me, it was a shock that Reinado and his followers are doing that to two men who worked closely with him and tried to settle the issues, which is he involved, in a peaceful manner. So I was shocked. And the motives of this, we don’t know. It’s still under investigation.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Is there any indication that the conspiracy around the attacks was more widespread than a few people or any sense that it was a part of a larger plot?

CONSTANCIO PINTO: Well, there is some speculation that some—there’s strong political motives behind it, but I don’t think so, because I think Reinado was frustrated because he has been criticizing the government, blaming everyone of being responsible for what happened in 2006, which I think you know, the violence that erupted between the soldiers and the police force. But in the end, the situation was dragged on, and I think Reinado was just probably disappointed.

AMY GOODMAN: What was that division over? What was the violence caused by in 2006?

CONSTANCIO PINTO: Well, 2006, it was a violence between the soldiers and the police. It started from allegations of the soldiers from the west of East Timor being—what have I said?—ill-treated in the military, so in terms of promotion and so on. And so, it was a very complicated issue. It was, in fact, an institution issue, but complicated, so that’s why it caused such terrible violence in 2006, where thirty people were killed.

AMY GOODMAN: Constancio Pinto, before we go to Allan Nairn, I wanted to turn to an interview that I did with Jose Ramos-Horta in Dili, the capital of East Timor. It was the week that East Timor was winning its independence, celebrating its independence, on May 20, 2002, after a quarter-of-a-century of brutal Indonesian rule. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning former journalist and anti-occupation activist, Ramos-Horta, had returned to East Timor after more than two decades in exile. He was the country’s first foreign minister. I asked Jose Ramos-Horta how he felt about the historic occasion of East Timor’s independence.

JOSE RAMOS-HORTA: Great, great, although also apprehensive, you know, because the task is enormous. The challenges are enormous. We have to handle so many issues at the same time, setting up the government, consolidating institutions, negotiate with Australia, with Indonesia. We will soon open up the maritime boundary discussions with Indonesia, with Australia, looking at the domestic challenges to keep the peace, create jobs.

AMY GOODMAN: All the groups that helped in different places around the world, what do you see as the role of solidarity with East Timor now? Do you see they have a place? Where do you think they can be the most effective?

JOSE RAMOS-HORTA: Well, first, let me say that from the very beginning, in my discussions planning for the independence celebrations, I have stated that—and I have raised it in the council ministers, and everybody unanimously agreed, that we should have a brainstorming discussion with the solidarity movement. Obviously, solidarity movement will not be—how you say—working for the government, as in the past it was, you know, very intimately working with the resistance.

Now we are going to be in different role, but the solidarity movement will have an important, important role in helping this country continue to mobilize resources, working with everybody, with NGOs, with the government whenever necessary, and trying to help us be a debt-free nation, so that at least there is one country in the world that is not saddled by debt. And that’s our determination. Whether we succeed or not will depend on our national policies and the international support.

AMY GOODMAN: So how will countries be dissuaded from doing the kinds of things that were done to the East Timorese, like the US military—the US government supporting the Indonesian military and the genocide?

JOSE RAMOS-HORTA: Well, they just have to look at themselves in the mirror, ask themselves whether what they are doing is wrong or right. I try often to look myself in the mirror and ask whether what I’m doing is wrong or right.

AMY GOODMAN: Jose Ramos-Horta in May 2002. He later was elected prime minister of East Timor and then president of East Timor. He now lies in a Darwin, Australia hospital bed, the victim of an assassination attempt.

We’re with Constancio Pinto, charge d’affaires. He’s in Washington, D.C. Allan Nairn joins us on the phone, journalist and activist who has long covered East Timor. Allan, your thoughts today?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, the attempt on Ramos-Horta was a terrible thing, and some of the things that are being said about it by foreign countries, I think, distort the situation in a way. Some are saying Timor is a failed state, that here the international community has been pouring all this money into Timor, and all they get out of it is chaos. I think those comments distort the situation.

First of all, the idea of the failed state—it’s true that Timor is failing, in a sense, to control its territory, and that’s bad, but I think a serious definition of a failed state would involve two basic responsibilities of any state. I mean, one is, they have to obey their own murder laws, so they shouldn’t be killing civilians or backing the killings of civilians overseas. And, two, they shouldn’t be letting people die preventably. People die of hunger, disease, that could be easily prevented.

On the first count, the Timorese government has not been killing civilians, like occurred during—as occurred during the Indonesian occupation, where a third of the population was slaughtered. On the second count, the Timorese government has been falling short, because there still is hunger in the countryside. They have oil revenue now that should be used to immediately feed everyone, and that hasn’t happened, in part because of bickering, petty bickering within the Timorese government. And I think the old generation of independence leaders that is leading Timor now should either now settle their differences, feed the people, or step aside and let new fresher leadership take over.

But if you’re going to judge other states by that standard, you would have to say that, say, Australia or Indonesia or the US are much more of a failed state than Timor is, because those are countries that have been killing civilians overseas. Essentially—

JUAN GONZALEZ: Allan, I’d like to ask you about the whole issue of continued presence of outside forces, obviously United Nations troops and Australian soldiers in the country. Are they playing a positive role in all of this, or is this still another burden that the Timorese people face of these outside military forces?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, I mean, that’s a complicated question, and opinions differ on that. I would, you know, defer to Timorese to give—to hear their opinions on that. It’s nothing like, though—nothing like the nefarious role that the US, Australia and others played during the years of the Indonesian invasion and occupation. I mean, both the US and Australia greenlighted the Indonesian invasion. They armed it as they were slaughtering the population. And, in fact, Australia was backing the Indonesian military up until really just a few months before the referendum for independence in Timor. They switched sides only at the last minute, as basically the ship was sinking and it was becoming clear that Indonesia could no longer politically maintain its occupation of Timor. And then Indonesia—I’m sorry, Australia finally came out and said, OK, we will support a referendum for the Timorese. But up until that moment, they had been supporting the killing of the Timorese by arming the Indonesian army.

In fact, after the ’91 massacre in Dili of the procession that Constancio helped organize, the procession that came to the cemetery and where the Indonesian troops opened fire using American M-16s, after that, activists organized in the United States, put pressure on Congress, and the US Congress actually cut off the sale of weaponry like M-16s to Indonesia. But then Australia stepped in to fill the gap, and they started providing the rifles to Indonesia. And when the US Congress got training for outfits like Kopassus, the Indonesian special forces that are the most murderous of the murderous, when that got cut off, Australia stepped in to fill the gap and upped their training of Kopassus. So Australia is in no position now to pontificate.

And overall, I’d say the international community, particularly the United States and Australia, owe a huge debt to East Timor. And whatever aid they’ve given only begins to pay it off. Saddam Hussein, for example, had to pay compensation to Kuwait after he invaded Kuwait for the damage he did there in the weeks of his occupation. Countries like Indonesia and the US and Australia should be paying compensation to the Timorese. You can’t really pay back 200,000 lives, but at the very least they could cover the property damage, and that bill would run into the many hundreds of millions.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us, Allan Nairn, journalist who’s covered East Timor for many years, and Constancio Pinto in Washington, D.C., the charge d’affaires at the East Timorese embassy in Washington.


Constancio Pinto, Charge d’Affaires at the Timorese embassy to the U.S. in Washington, D.C.

Allan Nairn, journalist and activist who has covered East Timor extensively. He blogs at newsc.blogspot.com

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