Rebel leaves world puzzled about his cause

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 February, 2008, 12:00am

He was a self-styled folk hero with a Rambo complex and a common touch. Major Alfredo Alves Reinado, who was shot dead this week during a dramatic attempt on the lives of East Timor's president and prime minister, was a quixotic and contradictory figure.

He was hailed as a rebel hero by some East Timorese, as an unprincipled rabble-rouser by others. Trained by the Australian military, Reinado welcomed the Australian-led intervention in his country in 2006, but last week fired 'warning shots' at an Australian patrol. His colossal self-conviction propelled him to centre stage of East Timor's complex political scene.

But it was hubris that led to his ultimate downfall. His half-hearted attempt at launching a coup resulted in his death on Monday and left President Jose Ramos Horta fighting for his life in Darwin.

Reinado, believed to be about 40 years old, first came to prominence in 2006, when 600 soldiers - a third of East Timor's army - mutinied, complaining of discrimination and poor pay and conditions.

When the men were dismissed by the government, gunfights broke out with loyalist police and troops. Reinado became the rebels' leader, fleeing Dili and taking to the hills. Violence over the ensuing weeks left nearly 40 people dead and forced up to 150,000 from their homes.

Charismatic, handsome, with an excellent command of English, he was courted by the international press. Journalists made the bone-shaking three-hour journey from Dili to his mountain retreat, a hilltop villa dating from the Portuguese colonial era. When the South China Morning Post visited him in the villa overlooking the picturesque town of Maubisse, it was clear that Reinado was loving the attention.

Cocky and confident, he paced about in designer sunglasses and freshly-pressed military fatigues and was happy to pose for pictures against a stunning backdrop of mountains and coffee plantations.

In rambling, often contradictory remarks full of machismo, he called for the immediate resignation of the then prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, branding him a criminal and accusing him of corruption.

He pledged his allegiance to Xanana Gusmao, who was the president, a man regarded with almost religious awe by East Timorese for his role in the long, brutal struggle against Indonesian rule. But Reinado's loyalties were to change, with devastating consequences.

His upbringing offers clues as to how he evolved from an obscure officer to the leader of a mutiny that menaced Asia's youngest and poorest country. Born in a western district of East Timor, his family was caught up in the Indonesian invasion of the former Portuguese territory in 1975.

Reinado was seized by the Indonesian military at the age of 11 and forced to work as an officer's servant, witnessing rapes, shootings and extreme brutality. The military then sent him to Indonesia. 'They shipped him off in a wooden crate, as they did with a lot of East Timorese kids,' said Damien Kingsbury, an Indonesian affairs researcher at Australia's Deakin University. 'The idea was that they would become unpaid servants - in effect, slaves. I think these experiences left him psychologically disturbed.'

He escaped back to East Timor and in 1995 captained a boat, with 18 refugees on board, to Australia.

After applying for asylum he worked in the dockyards of Western Australia for four years, before returning to his homeland after the bloody 1999 referendum in which East Timorese voted to become independent from Jakarta.

He joined the fledgling country's military and, thanks to his time working with ships, was made commander of its two-vessel navy.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported in 2006 that in 2004, Reinado was removed as commander for getting into a fight with the police. The following year he was sent to a three-month naval training course at the Australian Joint Command and Staff College.

He reportedly became involved with a junior female Timorese soldier there and was disciplined on return by being removed from the navy and given command of the military police, a distinct downgrading.

Once he had thrown in his lot with the mutineers, Reinado took to the hills, his rebel band supported by sympathetic villagers.

'He saw himself as a popular cult figure, a bit of a Rambo character,' said Dr Kingsbury. 'He had an overinflated sense of his own importance.'

Arrested in July 2006 by international peacekeepers, he escaped from prison shortly afterwards in a mass jailbreak.

Australian SAS soldiers closed in on him with helicopters and armoured vehicles last year near the town of Same, but in a major embarrassment for the elite unit, Reinado evaded them, leaving behind five dead supporters.

The renegade continued to remain at large, in part because of the soft approach adopted by Mr Ramos Horta, who believed that negotiating with Reinado was better than trying to bring him in by force. But while Reinado resisted invitations to talk, some of his band were tiring of life in the bush.

'The petitioners recently split, with some no longer inclined to support him,' said Helen Hill, from Victoria University in Melbourne, a regular visitor to East Timor for more than 30 years. 'The conflict within the armed forces was on its way to being solved. His support was ebbing away.'

Dr Kingsbury concurred. 'Reinado knew that the government was dismantling his support base and he was feeling cornered.'

The ill-conceived raid on Dili was, perhaps, a dramatic bid to reassert his relevancy, a death-or-glory mission to kill or kidnap East Timor's two most senior leaders.

'Maybe he thought he could kill Ramos Horta and be treated as a hero. Maybe he wanted to be a martyr,' said Dr Hill. 'Either way, one of the government's major headaches is now out of the way.'

George Quinn, head of the Southeast Asia Centre at the Australian National University, described Reinado as 'a maverick and a spoiler' and said his death would help improve stability.

Reinado was buried in his backyard on Thursday at a funeral attended by hundreds of supporters.

He leaves behind awkward questions as to how he and his men were able to drive into Dili unchallenged and come so close to killing the nation's founders, despite the presence of hundreds of heavily-armed peacekeepers.

Even more alarming is how the survivors of the rebel band were able to escape Dili and melt back into the bush without being stopped by international soldiers or police.

As to exactly what Reinado hoped to achieve with his desperate dawn raid, we may never know.