Alfredo Reinado’s jailbreak - New wave of political instability in Timor Leste

Updated On: Sep 05, 2006

Timor Leste has encountered another shock to its political stability. Major Alfredo Reinado is on the run, along with 56 other inmates from the Dili jailbreak since last week.

The rebel leader responsible for the May bloodshed which took 21 lives has triggered an international manhunt led by the UN police and international peacekeepers. Reinado was arrested last month on charges of weapons possession, which went against his group’s earlier promise to surrender all weapons to Australian troops in June.

Checkpoints were put up around Dili to prevent the fugitives’ flight to the villages located in the surrounding mountains, while Indonesian authorities have stepped up security at the border with Timor Leste.  

The impact of Reinado’s jailbreak was immediately palpable in the conflict-ridden state. Gang fights broke out in the streets of the Dili capital on September 1. Hospital officials revealed that at least eight people were wounded after a group attacked a refugee camp in downtown Dili hotel with stones.

Elsewhere, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Ron Redmond warned of increasing polarisation of communities in and around Dili, and which would affect the safety of some 67,900 people displaced by the conflict and living in makeshift camps.

What implications would Reinado’s escape have upon the future of Timor Leste’s political security?

Reinado’s role in Timor Leste’s unstable political landscape is significant. He was a leading member of the campaign to oust former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri.

According to John Pilger’s New Statesmen report on June 26, an Australian brigadier greeted Reinado with open arms instead of arresting him, during the installation of Australia’s 2000-strong peacekeeping force, which was in turn, prompted by Reinado’s instigation of the May attacks.

A prison guard recalled Reinado confiding in him before the breakout that he would only return to jail should Alkatiri face imprisonment – the latter is currently facing investigation over his alleged role in killing his political opponents.

Reinado’s identity as a pawn in Timor Leste’s power struggle is further reinforced by the fact the local authorities did not arrest him for more than a month following the May violence, in spite of his public movements. In addition, President Xanana Gusmao has always avoided criticising Reinado’s actions, leading some to interpret a broader political scheme to use Reinado to overthrow the democratically-elected Alkatiri.

In a scathing report in TODAY (August 23) titled, Timor Leste and the $47b question, media analyst Kalinga Seneviratne suggested that “pro-Australian” Jose Ramos-Horta’s replacement of “nationalist” Alkatiri was the “culmination of a carefully-choreographed Australian political drama” to lay hands on Timor Leste’s US$30 billion ($47.2 billion) vast oil deposits.

One of the strongest bases for such a claim is Australia’s insistence to head the peacekeeping force in Timor Leste, even at its own expense, and resist the UN Security Council’s move to provide a UN-led replacement force. Three weeks ago, Australia’s ambassador to the UN, Mr Robert Hill, proposed for the UN Security Council to only provide an international police presence and leave the military role to Australia.

Yet, if PM Jose Ramos-Horta is “pro-Australian” as Kalinga suggests, his response to the jailbreak runs counter to such a label. "I am personally just puzzled why, in spite of our repeated requests for static forces to be outside the prison, this was not done," Ramos-Horta said. "I presume the Australian forces, the UN, as experts in security, they thought it was not necessary." Australian PM John Howard quickly rejected the Timor Leste PM’s claim. "I am very concerned that these people escaped but I am quite certain the Australian Defense Force has done the right thing," Howard told reporters in Sydney.

Reinado’s escape has dealt a blow to Ramos-Horta’s leadership, and represents his first test as prime minister. Reinado’s escape has also indirectly reinforced Australia’s military presence in Timor Leste, especially given the present spate of social unrest in the wake of the jailbreak news.


Despatches: Australia builds its empire (New Statesmen, 26 June 2006)

Timor Leste and the $47b question (TODAY, 23 August 2006)

Clashes break out in E. Timor as troops hunt for escaped inmates (CNN, 1 September2006)

U.N. concerned over flare-up in East Timor violence (Reuters, 1 September 2006)

Indonesia steps up security at Timor border (AFP/The Straits Times, 3 September 2006)

Dili sealed off as prison-break upsets Timor (The Jakarta Post, 3 September 2006)