Trouble brewing in East Timor again?

Updated On: Feb 27, 2007

Tensions are building up in East Timor again.

This time, over the possible sacking of troops on strike, the shooting of an East Timorese refugee by an Australian peacekeeper and a series of attacks against Australian-led international peacekeepers.

The soldiers walked out of their camps on 8 Feb 2007 to demonstrate their unhappiness over working conditions and regulations for career advancement and they delivered a petition to President Xanana Gusmao. Sympathizing with the striking soldiers, members of local human rights watchdogs opined that the problem was caused by the lack of transparency in military regulations.

The East Timorese government’s retaliation over the demonstrating troops was fast and furious. "As of today, the government will only pay the salaries of soldiers who are active in the military," said Col. Lere Anan Timor, deputy chief of the East Timor Defense Force. "We still consider them as soldiers, but if they do not return ... they are at risk of mass sacking," he said.

This reaction was in stark contrast to the earlier response by President Gusmao who urged them to return to duty and promised a government inquiry into their complaints. Could this an indication of factionalism and disagreement over official policies within the government? This recent incident has shadow of the unrest caused by the sacking of 600 soldiers in March 2006.

Outside domestic unrest, East Timor is also facing challenges in its foreign relations. Its army which was trained by Australian and Portuguese instructors to protect the Australian-East Timor-Portugal interests against Indonesian incursions is increasingly seen as a containment device on Indonesia’s Oceanic front. Canberra has 800 troops in East Timor and has an additional 1700 foreign non-Australian troops under its command.

Moreover, unhappiness brought about by the presence of foreign Australian troops in the young nation can become tense and conflictual by little incidents. For example, an Australian peacekeeper shot dead an East Timorese civilian during a clash near the capital Dili with the Australian soldier claiming that he was acting in self-defence after being attacked by steel arrows at a refugee camp.  This was not the same story given by a refugee spokesman who said the violence happened when Australian soldiers tried to arrest people guarding the refugee encampment. "They resisted by throwing rocks at the Australian soldiers, who responded with shots and came inside the camp using an armoured vehicle," the refugee spokesperson Jose da Costa told Reuters news agency.

This and other incidents have sparked a wave of anti-Australian feelings in East Timor. As a result, the Australian-led UN and International Security Forces (ISF) have been targeted in a series of rock throwing incidents, with 50 UN vehicles hit over two days. In response, the Australian-led UN Police and the International Security Forces arrested about 100 people each. In December 2006, anti-Australian campaigns were launched against Australians with Canberra’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) issuing a travel advisory warning to Aussies not to venture into East Timor.

The media is speculating on the origins of such anti-Australian sentiments with some claiming that they could be orchestrated by Indonesian forces. Australia, however, attributed such increase in violence to the run-up of the presidential elections in April 2008 and claimed that anarchist forces are wreaking havoc in the country. Yet there are others who believed that the increase in violence was due to rice shortages and ongoing gang violence. 

Added to such civil disorder is a general sense of lawlessness in the country as U.N. police were hunting for five prisoners who escaped from prison. This may be represented by the confusion resulting from differing accounts of this current jailbreak. Australian-led U.N. forces spokeswoman Alison Cooper insisted that six people escaped but one was recaptured and therefore it was a net loss of five prisoners but the prison guard claimed that in fact 40 had escaped.

This was the second time prisoners had escaped from Becora prison in Dili. In September 2006, 57 inmates escaped from the prison, including renegade military leader Alfredo Reinado, blamed for instigating violence against the government and its Australian protectors in May 2006. He remains a fugitive.

In response to the latest violence, Indonesia has shut its border with East Timor following a request from its Prime Minister, Jose Ramos Horta. "The border closing is to prevent an infiltration by this group into Indonesian territory as this could give rise to new problems for the two countries," Indonesian president’s spokesman Dino Patti Djalal said.

Meanwhile, another shadow from the past is back. Aceh is also facing its own set of challenges after the successful conclusion of the local elections last December.  A former rebel leader of GAM, Irwandi Yusu,f was elected and has been installed as the Governor of Aceh. Free Aceh Movement (GAM) was a former separatist group in the province.

Nationalistic Indonesians who have been unhappy seeing chunks of its former territories breaking away with East Timor falling into the sphere of Australian influence remained wary about the autonomy given to Aceh, fearing centripetal forces breaking the country further apart.  Home Minister M. Ma'ruf , perhaps reflecting some of this wariness, appealed to the new Acehnese local government to work closely with the central and provincial governments. "The new governor is also expected to work with the provincial legislative council as partners, not as rivals," Ma'ruf said.

While the peace in Aceh continues to hold and there is plenty of optimism, the new government does face real hurdles and challenges such as slow rehabilitation and reconstruction for the tsunami victims. All these have the potential to destabilize Aceh’s development and it seems some Acehnese are getting impatient.  Dissatisfaction is already brewing. Nursyiah Abubakar from Alue Ie Puteh in North Aceh regency claimed that her request for economic assistance had been turned down and she warned the new government: "if they fail to meet their promises, we will not elect them again ... Just wait and see".  (26 February 2007)


Indonesia shuts border with East Timor to prevent rebel movement (Antara News, 26 February 2007)

Hundreds of striking East Timor troops face dismissal (Jakarta Post, 25 February 2007)

U.N. police in East Timor hunting for 5 escaped inmates (Jakarta Post, 25 February 2007)

Jose Ramos-Horta to Run for East Timor Presidency (Voice of America, 25 February 2007)

E Timor attacks may be 'destabilisation bid' (Australia’s News Network, 24 February 2007)

Peacekeeper kills E Timor refugee (BBC, 23 February 2007)

Priorities for a GAM-led government in Aceh (Jakarta Post, 19 February 2007)

Aceh enters new era with Irwandi at the helm (Jakarta Post, 9 February 2007)