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  • Dec 29, 2014
  • Updated: 2:26am

Voice in the wilderness

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2007, 12:00am

He is one of the founders of Fretilin, the largest party in Asia's newest and poorest nation. He also spent 24 years in exile during the Indonesian occupation of his homeland East Timor. And while considered by many to be arrogant, out of touch and manipulative, deposed prime minister Mari Alkatiri is seen by others as the only man who can ensure a viable future for his fledgling country.

Mr Alkatiri was forced to step down from the role of East Timor's prime minister after violence flared last May in the streets of the former Portuguese colony. Last year's military mutiny and gang clashes effectively marginalised him in the June elections, although he is still secretary-general of Fretilin.

Despite leading his country's first post-independence government and being credited with securing a better future for his nation by forcing Australia to share disputed oil and gas reserves, Mr Alkatiri is still labelled as manipulative, arrogant and a communist.

He has been blamed for failing to alleviate poverty, of having established an autocratic system and of having, last year, led the country to the brink of civil war. He was also accused, and cleared, of having helped form a hit squad to eliminate rivals. He is demonised by most foreign media, and many at home would like him to quit politics altogether.

Over coffee at his house in East Timor's capital, Dili, Mr Alkatiri gave the South China Morning Post a glimpse of his side of the story and his hopes for the future.

Talking in a light-hearted manner, he acknowledged that his gruff personality had created a barrier with the East Timorese people, but pointed a finger of blame at those who had ostracised him because of his faith as a Muslim in a devoutly Catholic nation.

'Cultural difference has been a problem. I cannot deny that it has created difficulties,' said Mr Alkatiri, who can trace part of his hereditary from Yemenite traders who settled in East Timor more than a century ago. 'For the East Timorese, it is important to smile always, even if you may not act accordingly. I'm completely against this. I prefer to be open, direct and smile only when I really want to.'

Mr Alkatiri was born in Dili in 1949. Besides his family roots, his personality was shaped by the long time he spent abroad.

He left East Timor in 1970 to study in Angola, but returned in 1975 when East Timor's colonial power, Portugal, announced its intention to leave. He was one of the founders of the Timorese Social Democratic Association (ASDT), which later became Fretilin.

He was also among those who unilaterally declared independence on November 28, 1975. As the Fretilin leadership feared an Indonesian invasion, he was dispatched with Jose Ramos Horta and Jose Lobato to look for diplomatic support overseas. Indonesian troops entered East Timor in December of that year and, unable to return home, Mr Alkatiri and his colleagues established the headquarters of Fretilin External Delegation in Mozambique.

'Mozambique was the only country that offered us support at that time. For 15 years it was the largest financial supporter of the East Timorese cause. Without it, little could have been achieved. I have fond memories of Mozambique,' said Mr Alkatiri.

He also said his Islamic beliefs often played a role in the way he was perceived in East Timor. 'Being Muslim has always been very difficult for me here. I understood that already when I was part of the small group who established ASDT,' said Mr Alkatiri. 'During one of the first meetings, very influential people questioned whether I should be there, since I am not Catholic.'

Mr Alkatiri cited his religion as the main reason for his sour relationship with East Timor's Catholic Church, the country's most influential institution, an allegation denied by the Bishop of Dili, Alberto Ricardo da Silva.

The first major public protest against his government came in April 2005, when hundreds of people heeded the call of a local Catholic radio programme asking Catholics to 'protest against Alkatiri and kick him out'.

The call followed disagreement between the church and the government over the school curriculum. The church wanted the Catholic faith to be compulsory in schools, but the government insisted East Timor was a secular state and no one faith could be imposed on everyone. The protest rocked the government, which then backed down.

Mr Alkatiri also suggested the church played a role in last year's crisis, which led to his resignation in June that year. As the nation descended into chaos, international peacekeeping troops were deployed.

The former prime minister said he dreamed of an East Timor developed in a sustainable way and of eradicating poverty in a country where 40 per cent of its 1 million people were illiterate and survived on US 50 cents a day. He also said he dreamed of an East Timor that produced talented people who could make a difference. As a model for his East Timor he mentioned a mixture of Norway, Cuba and Singapore. 'I am firmly convinced that it can all be achieved. I have no doubts about that,' he said.

He also talked at length about the decades he spent abroad after Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony. 'I spent 24 hours a day for 24 years working for independence,' said Mr Alkatiri, who was also a chartered surveyor and a senior legal consultant in Angola and Mozambique. 'I was very active in bilateral diplomacy with African countries. It was thanks to the African vote that East Timor got a resolution from the United Nations General Assembly condemning the Indonesian invasion in 1982,' he said.

Mr Alkatiri's contribution to independence has often been overshadowed by Xanana Gusmao and Mr Ramos Horta. The former led the jungle-based resistance for almost two decades and is considered a hero in East Timor, where he became the country's first post-independence president and is now prime minister.

The latter, recently elected president, won the Nobel Peace Prize for roaming the world while in exile and keeping the plight of East Timor alive. Only last May, in the midst of the crisis, was Mr Alkatiri awarded East Timor's highest award, the Dom Boaventura medal, in recognition of his contribution to the struggle for independence. Soon after, Mr Gusmao belittled Mr Alkatiri's contribution to the independence cause, saying on TV that 'he doesn't have blood on his hands' and 'he always washed his hands with soap'.

The political rivalries and mutual dislikes that separated him from Mr Gusmao and, to a lesser extent, from Mr Ramos Horta, surfaced as he talked about the two men. 'I respect Gusmao as a commander of the guerilla. I have no doubt in him as the person who struggled for independence and led the resistance in the most difficult times,' said Mr Alkatiri. 'But I don't respect Gusmao as a statesman or president of this country, where the rule of law has to prevail, because Gusmao thinks he is above the law.'

Mr Alkatiri blamed Mr Gusmao for last year's crisis, accusing him of siding against Fretilin and of having split the country into east and west factions with two inflammatory speeches broadcast on national TV. The speeches were also criticised by some neutral observers. The International Crisis Group said that 'by legitimising western grievances, [the speeches] seem to have led to attacks on easterners'.

East Timor's 2006 crisis stemmed from the grass roots discontent with poverty and perceived injustices from the government. It exploded after Mr Alkatiri's hasty sacking of half the army, which had gone on strike claiming ethnic discrimination. The crisis eventually took the shape of regional fighting between easterners and westerners, and it also became a political battle between Mr Gusmao and Mr Alkatiri. Then foreign minister Mr Ramos Horta sided with long-time ally Mr Gusmao.

'It is different with Jose Ramos Horta,' said Mr Alkatiri. 'Horta's main problem is that he is very superficial. He never goes in depth on any issue and if he keeps doing that it will be very dangerous because now he is the head of state,' he added, almost with contempt.

Although he has said repeatedly he does not plan to run for prime minister again, Mr Alkatiri acknowledged that his position as Fretilin secretary-general kept him politically very busy and was likely to do so for the foreseeable feature.

'One day I would like to teach. I also like gardening and reading, but I have no time. Now, the only hobby I have time for is working,' he said.

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