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Disarming the rebels -latest developments in East Timor

Updated On: Jun 20, 2006

 Lt. Cmdr. Alfredo Reinado, leader of a rebel faction which included soldiers dismissed by the Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri ,announced that they have decided to disarm following a meeting with President Xanana Gusmao.

This probably had something to do with Xanana’s public protection of the rebel leader, defending Alfredo Reinado and insisting that he "was not a rebel''. While not supporting the call for Prime Alkatiri’s resignation, President Gusmao also hinted that the problems may not lie with the rebels when he said "Maj. Alfredo is not the one who initiated the problem, we have many other issues to think about”.

Following this peace initiative, Australian Commander Army Brig. Mick Slater was upbeat with the turn of events. 

"Provided they stay in these areas, they will receive the full protection of the international force to make sure that no one is aggressive toward them," Slater told a press conference. "This will enable them to confidently enter into negotiations with the president and other members of the government." The surrendering of rebel weapons is also good news for the Australian-led peacekeeping forces which has been under some criticisms lately by some Timorese that “that multinational troops are standing by when their houses are burning” and the perception that “the forces are just here to check for weapons”, and not doing more to protect the local population.

The Malaysian peacekeepers were also much less optimistic than their Australian counterparts. Contradicting Australian optimism, Colonel Nazri Cheelah, head of the Malaysian peacekeeping contingent said the security situation could be bubbling under the surface. "Under uncertain situations like this, if I were a rebel I wouldn't give up my arms." "It is not easy to see what's happening. But there are guns for sure being smuggled by groups in the mountains," Cheelah said. Despite the good news filtering through, the forces for peace and order in East Timor realizes that there remains many other weapons stashed in the mountains that act as a makeshift munitions depot for the rebels.

Other than these mountainous rebel depots, President Xanana and Foreign Minister/Defense Minister Jose Ramos Horta also appeared keen on getting rid of Prime Minister Alkatiri’s support base in the police. To anti-Alkatiri forces in the country, the police, not the rebels which are poorly-armed in comparison, is the real threat. Ramos Horta explains: “The police are very factionalized with too many weapons, and more than 3,000 police with so many areas of expertise, like the border police, the rapid response unit, the special force. I don't know how we managed to have all these different units for such a small nation.”

For now, however, the government’s loyalist 800 veteran soldiers (among a total of 1,400 personnel) seems to be on a upswing in preserving peace and order in coordination with the international peacekeepers.

Meanwhile, Xanana returns from a weekend meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono where he was expected to have gotten assurance from the Indonesian President of non-intervention in East Timorese domestic affairs, and the commitment that Indonesia will soon reopen border crossings.

Although Indonesia had responded to Mr Gusmao’s appeal for humanitarian aid, it has resolutely refused to commit any troops for a peacekeeping role.  Indonesian observers also remained bristled by the strong involvement of the Australians, and had not stopped casting suspicious glance at the Australians.

Haryadi Wiryawan, head of the Department of International Relations at the University of Indonesia argues: "It should be remembered that Australia has political and economic interests in Timor Leste. They want to have influence in the country, and don't want Indonesia to have more leverage. Alkatiri's socialist outlook is seen as not in line with what they want Timor Leste to be." Haryadi also lends credence to growing evidence of Australia’s role in containing China which was publicly laid out for the region since the trilaterals hosted by Australia and attended by the US and Japan. He said that Australia aimed also at preventing Timor Leste from becoming too close to China.

Other Indonesian observers blame the UN instead. Kristio Wahyono, former head of the Indonesian diplomatic mission in Timor Leste, said that the United Nations and foreign institutions who helped establish and train Timor Leste's armed forces should be held responsible for what is happening there now. "They have failed to train and unite the Timor Leste armed forces, and with a huge amount of funds, it is questionable why Timor Leste soldiers earned a very low salary compared to the foreign instructors and trainers," he said. 

Sources:

Timor needs to disarm population to ensure security : analysts (Today/AFP, 18 June 2006)

Indonesia urged to help Dili but not intervene (Jakarta Post, 18 June 2006)

East Timor's president defends rebel leader (The Star/AP, 18 June 2006)

East Timor rebel leader pledges to begin disarming Friday (Jakarta Post, 16 June 2006)

'Timor Leste's police are very factionalized' (Jakarta Post, 16 June 2006)

PM Alkatiri resignation would not solve crisis, experts say (Jakarta Post, 16 June 2006)

ETimor rebels surrender weapons to international troops (Bernama, 16 June 2006)

Timor rebel soldiers may disarm soon (The Straits Times/AP, 16 June 2006)