June 29, 2006

Back to the drawing board in East Timor

[Thanks to jenise for this link]
by Adam Wolfe
In April, Paul Wolfowitz, the World Bank president, visited East Timor and praised the "bustling markets, the rebuilt schools, the functioning government - and above all, the peace and stability". East Timor, the world's youngest country and one of the smallest, was widely considered a success story, a model for future and current United Nations nation-building missions.

Just weeks after Wolfowitz hailed the country's "remarkable story", East Timor nearly collapsed. Four days after the country celebrated its fourth anniversary, it asked for the return of international peacekeepers.

The collapse seems to have taken the donor community by surprise, and exposed ethnic tensions few recognized as late as three months ago. Governmental mismanagement, corruption, political positioning for an upcoming election and simmering ethnic tensions acted as kindling for the fiery dispute between the prime minister and the president, which culminated on Monday when the prime minister stepped down. As Australian peacekeepers seek to restore order, East Timor now faces the challenge of rebuilding its political institutions.

The current crisis stems from an ethnic imbalance in the country's armed forces, but its roots are political. Most of the officers are from the eastern regions, while the majority of the rank-and-file men come from the west. When a group of soldiers protested the discrimination in March and called for the dismissal of prime minister Mari Alkatiri, the government sacked about 600 of the country's 1,400 soldiers. A group of about 500 of the dismissed soldiers sparked large-scale riots in Dili on April 28 - including looting, arson, and the murder of at least five civilians - then took to the hills in the country's interior, where they remain.

Armed gangs took advantage of the security void, and terrorized eastern descendents in the western regions. Thousands in Dili and the surrounding region fled their homes out of fear of further violence. Small battles between security forces and their former colleagues popped up throughout May and gang violence increased.

Until a few months ago, few recognized any ethnic differences in the population, let alone within the military. There is little record of any divide between the Lorosae in the east and the Loromonu in the west. One explanation is that the Lorosae consider themselves closer to the guerrillas who fought against Indonesia, while the Loromonu are closer to the former occupying country. Resistance to Indonesian rule, however, was fairly uniform by most accounts.

When the Loromonu soldiers protested the perceived discrimination in pay and promotions, it was the first most observers had heard of such an ethnic divide. While political gain was likely at the heart of the initial protest by the soldiers, street gangs used the divide for their own objectives. The street gangs emerged from the martial-arts groups that formed during the Indonesian occupation; moreover, the 70% unemployment rate in Dili has made recruiting easy. The looting and violence launched by the street gangs in the wake of the soldiers' protests have caused an estimated 75% of Dili's population to flee their homes.

While the current divide in East Timor does have an aspect of ethnic tension, its roots are political. Former prime minister Alkatiri led the Fretilin Party, which controls 55 seats in the 88-seat parliament. Alkatiri is feuding, again, with President Xanana Gusmao. When East Timor was drafting its constitution, Alkatiri was able to leverage the support of the Fretilin Party to establish a parliamentary system. Gusmao and his supporters preferred a presidential system, knowing that they could not compete against the Fretilin Party machine within a parliament, but would easily win a popular election. This proved an accurate assessment, and the wildly popular Gusmao now holds the largely ceremonial role of president, while Alkatiri controlled the government until Monday.
Gusmao has supported the opposition parties - the Democratic Party and the Social Democratic Party - and the political divide between the two leaders has filtered down through the ranks in government institutions, including the military. Alkatiri, an Arab Muslim, further caused public resentment by taking on powerful groups, including the Catholic Church - which counts 90% of the population as followers - when he made religious education optional rather than compulsory.

Although the prime minister has stepped down, his replacement is likely to reignite the political tensions that have been further strained by the current crisis. President Gusmao, using powers some have questioned as unconstitutional, assumed from the prime minister the power of overseeing the security forces after the soldiers' protest. He then gave Jose Ramos Horta, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning foreign minister and Gusmao's longtime ally, the Defense and Interior portfolios and asked for the prime minister's resignation.

Alkatiri, using the support of his dominant Fretilin Party, refused to step down. Gusmao then threatened to resign if Alkatiri would not; he later backed away from this announcement. Alkatiri's position was weakened by an Australian documentary that linked him and other Fretilin leaders to an alleged plot to arm a civil militia. Then, on Sunday, Ramos Horta, via a text message, quit the government to protest against Alkatiri staying on. The following day, Alkatiri resigned.

Alkatiri's resignation, however, will not end the political crisis. In fact, the following day, thousands of Fretilin supporters gathered in the streets to show their support for Alkatiri. This will make Gusmao's preferred method of resolving the crisis - appointing an interim prime minister to serve until elections next year - more difficult to implement. Gusmao and the donor community prefer to see a non-Fretilin prime minister, specifically Ramos Horta, in office until the scheduled elections. Fretilin prefers to select the next prime minister from its own ranks; its likely candidates are Ana Pessoa Pinto, Ramos Horta's ex-wife, who was acting as vice minister to Alkatiri, or Arsenio Paixao Bano, the young minister for labor and solidarity.

Holding elections as scheduled would signal that the country's political institutions have not been broken by the current crisis. Dissolving the government and holding early elections in the face of protests would have the opposite effect. Gusmao is negotiating with Fretilin leaders to install an interim prime minister, but if the negotiations are stalled, he may be forced to dissolve the government.

International reaction to the crisis
At the request of East Timor's president, Australia sent about 150 commandos to quell the violence on May 25, followed by an international force of about 2,500 troops from Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Portugal. Australia's interest in East Timor dates back to 1999, when it led the peacekeeping mission to the tiny country after it voted for its independence from Indonesia. There are economic interests for Australia as well: in January, East Timor and Australia signed a deal to divide billions of dollars in expected revenues from oil and gas deposits in the Timor Sea.

This deployment, however, is another sign of Australia's growing peacekeeping presence in the region. It has several hundred soldiers and police in the Solomon Islands. Teams of Australian civil servants are working to rebuild the public service in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. The police commissioner and several judges in Fiji are Australian.

There are concerns in Canberra that these deployments may be unsustainable. The military budget is set to increase by 11% next year and at least 3% each year until 2010. Also, Australia's growing security role in the region is likely to strain relations further with Indonesia. For these reasons, the UN can be expected to play a larger role in the stabilization mission in the near future, although Australia will maintain a leading role in any new UN mission in East Timor.

The UN's role in East Timor can be expected to take on greater importance in the near future, but many have blamed the current breakdown on the previous UN mission. On June 21, the UN Security Council asked the Secretary General'S Office to prepare a report on taking over the security mission from Australia at the end of the year, to stay on at least through the elections scheduled for 2007.

While the UN-led peacekeeping mission after East Timor's vote for independence in 1999 was considered a success by most, there was a debate within the organization about drawing down the mission last year. Those on the ground in East Timor cited the need for the UN to maintain its large presence in the country, but the UN Security Council allowed the mission to be scaled down dramatically in the past year, with only a small political aspect remaining, and even that only remains because of two extensions that have been granted after the crisis sparked by the protesting soldiers.

The UN has been criticized for leaving East Timor too early, before it was able to build the necessary political institutions. The Security Council wanted to conclude its mission to the country that was costing hundreds of millions of dollars each year, and it was scheduled to depart in May. UN reforms enacted since the original mission in East Timor may help prevent relapses like the current crisis in Dili.

The newly created UN Peacekeeping Commission is to coordinate development, security, and political transitions in post-conflict societies. However, this new "layer of bureaucracy", as a US congressional report calls the commission, will not be able to act if the Security Council does not will it to do so. Current UN missions in Liberia and Afghanistan can only be expected to stay on as long as the Security Council considers it necessary. These missions will likely point to the example of East Timor for extensions.

East Timor's current crisis - in which half the army deserted and is encamped in the country's hills, 130,000 people have fled their homes in fear of gang violence, the prime minister has quit his post, and an international peacekeeping mission led by Australia attempts to keep the peace - has taken the international community by surprise. The initial response by Australia is further evidence of its growing security role in the region. While the UN has taken much of the blame for allowing the crisis to come to a head, it is likely to reinsert itself vigorously, if only to make East Timor an example, once again, of its role in nation-building.

Still, while the Australian-led peacekeeping mission may be able to contain the violence, and a political solution may soon be found to resolve the split between the president and the Fretilin Party, an economic solution will be needed to make any forthcoming peace stick. East Timor is the poorest country in Asia. Although the billions of dollars in potential revenue from oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea will generate revenue, the country will need to combat the armed gangs that have terrorized Dili during the political crisis.

The political crisis has exposed the weaknesses of East Timor's government and the country's underlying social tensions, for which a long-term solution has yet to be found.

Published with permission of the Power and Interest News Report, an analysis-based publication that seeks to provide insight into various conflicts, regions and points of interest around the globe. All comments should be directed to content@pinr.com .


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