'Arrogant' Alkatiri blamed for Dili's troubles

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 June, 2006, 12:00am

Sheltering in the grounds of a cathedral, Maria Jose delivered a blunt message to the machete-wielding youths who for more than a week have brought terror to the streets of Dili, the capital of East Timor.

'The gangs should kill Alkatiri, not other ordinary people,' the 30-year-old economics lecturer said. 'We are all suffering from the policies he's brought in.'

Mari Alkatiri is the prime minister of East Timor, which has once again found itself torn apart by fierce ethnic and political divisions.

The 56-year-old former academic may provide the key to resolving the crisis which has seen 2,500 Australian, New Zealand, Malaysian and Portuguese forces rushed to East Timor to prevent it from sliding into civil war.

It is the second time an Australian-led expeditionary force has been in East Timor in seven years.

Finding fans of Mr Alkatiri on the streets of Dili is difficult. Most people seem to hold him in contempt.

'No one likes Alkatiri,' said Brigida Martins, 32, a civil servant whose family has also sought refuge in the grounds of the Immaculada Conceicao cathedral. 'No one trusts him. We want him brought down.'

Mr Alkatiri is regarded by many East Timorese as arrogant, aloof and dictatorial. There are allegations of corruption against him, specifically the awarding to his brother of a monopoly contract for supplying weapons to the army and police.

He is blamed for mishandling a security standoff which led to the present crisis. About 600 soldiers from the west of the country went on strike in March, alleging discrimination at the hands of officers from eastern districts.

The government ordered them to return to their barracks but they refused. Instead of listening to their grievances Mr Alkatiri sacked them, provoking demonstrations that deteriorated into riots and bloodshed.

East Timorese analyst Damien Kingsbury, from Australia's Deakin University, said Mr Alkatiri should have called on the universally popular President Xanana Gusmao to mediate in the dispute. But relations between Mr Alkatiri and the president are strained and the prime minister did not want to see Mr Gusmao take credit for solving the impasse.

'Gusmao was thus ignored, which was also a mistake,' Professor Kingsbury wrote last week.

After gun battles between soldiers and police, the renegade troops took to the hills. The impasse continues, with the disaffected soldiers demanding the immediate resignation of Mr Alkatiri.

Their leader is Major Alfredo Reinado, a charismatic young officer, who has set up his base in a hilltop villa dating from the Portuguese colonial era.

It overlooks the picturesque town of Maubisse, a three-hour drive from Dili.

'Alkatiri is a criminal and should face justice,' Major Reinado said, pacing the villa's gardens in combat boots and camouflage fatigues.

He accuses the prime minister of ordering troops to fire on the soldier's protest on April 28 - when at least five people died. It is a charge Mr Alkatiri denies.

Mr Gusmao announced on Tuesday that he had assumed all powers over the military and police, a snub to Mr Alkatiri. But the rebels say that is not enough to diffuse the standoff and want the prime minister's resignation.

'He is the one responsible for all the things that have happened in Dili,' Major Reinado said. He claims 'everything started from his decision' to break up the demonstration.

Mr Alkatiri restated his determination not to step down yesterday, rejecting allegations that his government had lost the confidence of the people.

Everyone, it seems, has harsh words to say about the prime minister but he has strong support from within the ruling Fretilin party, which grew out of the struggle against Indonesian rule.

He first entered politics in 1970 at the age of 20, when the Movement for the Liberation of East Timor was established under Portuguese rule. Mr Alkatiri later became one of the founder members of Fretilin, which spearheaded the fight against the Indonesian occupation.

He is regarded as a wily and skilful negotiator, particularly in winning for his struggling nation a fair share of the massive oil and gas deposits in the Timor Sea.

'He's got a very good legal mind,' said one long-term observer of East Timorese politics. 'He was Fretilin's chosen candidate for prime minister from an early stage. There was a lot of respect for him because he campaigned for East Timor for so many years overseas.'

But Mr Alkatiri's quarter century in exile in Mozambique after escaping the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975 works against him. Having Portuguese as his first language marks him out as different from most East Timorese.

Years spent in exile in southern Africa stand in stark contrast to the record of Mr Gusmao, who spent much of the time leading a guerilla campaign against the Indonesians in East Timor's mountainous interior.

Mr Gusmao, who served in the Portuguese colonial army, was captured and imprisoned by Jakarta for seven years for his pro-independence struggle.

Mr Alkatiri is also hamstrung by his Muslim faith in an overwhelmingly Catholic country. He is descended from a Yemeni merchant who settled in Portuguese Timor.

His personal manner has also made him enemies. 'He's a naturally cold fish,' said the East Timor observer. 'He's impatient of criticism. His view seems to be that the people in exile are the ones most capable of ruling East Timor and that the local people have absurdly inflated expectations of the pace of progress.'

The hatred towards Mr Alkatiri was on display earlier this week when a mob armed with swords, machetes and slingshots marched towards a Dili hotel where the prime minister was due to give a press conference, threatening to kill him.

'Alkatiri is a terrorist!' the crowd shouted. 'We will kill him! Viva Gusmao!'

The national solidarity which sustained the resistance against the Indonesians and which promised such a bright future for the world's newest country appears to be in tatters.

'In the days of the resistance people stuck together,' said Gilson Ramos, a rights activist who has worked for the United Nations in Dili. 'But since Alkatiri, we have had corruption, political confrontation and human rights abuses. All this is the result of that.'

Descending the tortuous mountain road from the renegade troops' base back to Dili, plumes of smoke rose from recently torched houses. Thousands of desperate refugees, made homeless by the unrest, stormed a government warehouse on Thursday, looting 50kg sacks of rice before being chased away by hard-pressed Australian troops in full combat gear.

The depth of East Timor's political and ethnic fault lines are such that few people expect an instant return to normalcy even if Mr Alkatiri does decide to step down.

Possible replacements would include Jose Ramos Horta, East Timor's urbane Nobel Peace Prize-winning foreign minister.

'Alkatiri's resignation would at least open the doors to a settlement,' Major Reinado said from his mountain retreat. 'We need to sit down with a cool head and a cool heart and find a better way for East Timor.'