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East Timor’s dissatisfied soldiers

Updated On: May 02, 2006

Riots broke out in East Timor, a former territory annexed by Indonesia, and now an independent state.

It was started by hundreds of former East Timorese soldiers who were unhappy with their dismissal from the army. Trouble first started when approximately 600 soldiers went AWOL in March 2006 to protest against their working conditions and what they called favouritism in promotions. In retaliation, the Dili government fired all of them or about 42.9% of the total defence force in East Timor (total strength 1400).

The third day of the riots in the capital Dili was perhaps the most serious as the rioting soldiers and their supporters threw missiles at buildings and stalls. They also burnt shops, cars and invaded and damaged civilian houses.

The violence reached its peak when police surrounded the rioters after they set fire to nine cars near the offices of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. The rioters also ransacked the residence of the East Timor police deputy chief and were nearing the Indonesian embassy. When the riots first broke out, Indonesia seized upon the situation to demonstrate that the former East Timor may not have been better off without them. "The possibility of a civil war is there in East Timor after the UN ends its mission there on May 20. The deserters brought with them their weapons," Indonesian commander of the Wirasakti Regional Military Command, Col. APJ Noch Bola said.

Meanwhile, Indonesians are leaving its former annexed territory following the riots, including those working and residing in the capital Dili. "There were about 30 Indonesians who fled Dili and entered East Nusa Tenggara province Tuesday afternoon following the riot,"  Some might have been fearful of retaliation forIndonesia’s former occupation of East Timor. Bola urged all Indonesians still in East Timor to immediately leave the former Indonesian province.

According to protest leader Gastao Salsinha, the former soldiers, many of them from western districts of the country, went AWOL because they believed they were missing out on promotion to colleagues from the east. This was a leftover from colonial past as eastern East Timor was historically controlled by the Portuguese while the western half was by the Dutch colonial powers.

East Timor's foreign minister has tried to calm down the situation and promised that the government would review some of the soldiers' complaints on an individual basis. The Prime Minister added more weight to the efforts for the restoration of order: "We have decided to create a new commission ... to investigate and come up with a solution". The outbreak of the riots also gives ASEAN a chance to study East Timor’s security situation since the newly-independent state is a potential candidate for ASEAN membership. If it joins ASEAN, East Timor will become the poorest state in the organization.  

Sources:

Hundreds of East Timorese flee homes after clashes (Reuters, 29 April 2006)

Soldiers Run Riot (Melbourne Herald Sun, 29 April 2006)

2 killed, 21 injured in riot following ex-soldiers' protest (Jakarta Post, 28 April 2006)

E Timor troops riot over sacking (BBC, 26 April 2006)

Indonesians leaving East Timor after riot (Jakarta Post, 29 March 2006)