East Timor: Political crisis deepens as divisions in police force re-emerge

The apparent re-emergence of regional divisions within the East Timorese police force is one more sign of the crisis swirling around the country's unstable coalition government headed by Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao.

The appointment of a new police commander, scheduled for next month, could rekindle the bitter splits that led to the collapse of the police force in 2006. An anonymous leaflet circulated in Timor's capital, Dili, warned of violence if a police officer from the country's eastern districts was installed as commander. The Gusmao government responded by stepping up security around government buildings, erecting several roadblocks in Dili, and enforcing a ban on off-duty police taking their guns home with them.

It remains unclear who is responsible for the leaflet. According to the Associated Press, "government sources and one UN official" believe it was written by a group of police officers. Already there is discontent in police ranks. Last month members of the Police Task Force Unit threatened to strike for higher pay; according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, "their anger led to a confrontation at police headquarters". A number of corruption investigations are also underway. The interim police commander Alfonso de Jesus has reportedly been questioned recently over "disciplinary issues", while UN police arrested Bacau police chief Aderito da Costa Ximenes on October 9.

Deputy police commander Mateus Fernandes, however, denied that the inflammatory leaflet came from within the police force. According to Agence France-Presse, Fernandes alleged: "Some politicians have launched this to realise their own interests via the police and have been using this issue of who will become the police commander."

The easterner-westerner division first erupted in April 2006, when elements within the military and police (the so-called petitioners) staged rallies to protest against the then Fretilin government's alleged discrimination against those from the west. These regional divisions—while played up by the Australian and international media in 2006—are largely artificial, with no ethnic or linguistic differences between those from the west and east. Insofar as it does exist, the split stems from the protracted guerrilla war against the former Indonesian occupation--Fretilin fighters drew their main support in the remote east, while pro-Indonesia groups were centred in areas closer to West Timor

The petitioners' protest was not a spontaneous "pro-westerner" movement; rather the affair was deliberately instigated to destabilise the government and oust Fretilin Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. The violence involved right-wing opposition parties, former pro-Indonesian militias, and criminal gangs. Gusmao played a central role. In January this year, former military police commander Alfredo Reinado, who had joined the "petitioner's" mutiny against the government, accused the prime minister of directly instigating the split in the military and the violent anti-Fretilin protests. Reinado was shot dead in highly dubious circumstances in February this year, shortly after he threatened to release further information on the prime minister's 2006 activities.

Canberra seized on the 2006 unrest to dispatch hundreds of troops to Timor as part of its "regime change" campaign against the Fretilin administration. Alkatiri was regarded as too closely aligned with rival powers, particularly China and Portugal. Gusmao subsequently came to power with the enthusiastic backing of the Australian government and media.

Fretilin rally

It remains unclear whether the renewed unrest within the police force is being instigated by political factions in Timor or by foreign powers.

Fretilin has adamantly denied that it is instigating or seeking to exploit the situation. Party spokesman Jose Teixeira declared: "In terms of drawing parallels [with 2006], the big distinction that should be drawn is that unlike the 2006 situation, Fretilin, as a major opposition force, will not be attempting to use the discontented police officers in the same way as opposition parties then used the discontented petitioners to bring down the government... Fretilin will never do to them what they did to Fretilin in 2006."

Teixeira suggested that disaffected elements within the police were seeking to press their claims amid security concerns over Fretilin's planned "peace march" next month.

Opposition leader Mari Alkatiri announced in September that Fretilin would lead a rally of 50,000 people in Dili to demand "peace and democracy" and to show that they do not recognise the constitutional legitimacy of the Gusmao government. Fretilin president Francisco Guterres added that the aim was to remove the government in a peaceful and lawful manner.

In parliamentary elections held in June last year, Fretilin won 29 percent of the vote, more than any other party, but was not invited to try to form a coalition government. With Canberra's backing, Gusmao's National Congress for the Reconstruction of East Timor (CNRT), instead cobbled together an unstable multi-party administration despite securing just 24 percent of the vote. Fretilin rejected the constitutional legitimacy of this outcome and continues to refer to the "de facto government".

Fretilin's efforts to return to power have centred on manoeuvres within the Dili political establishment aimed at forcing fresh elections. In February, President Horta publicly expressed his agreement with this demand after concluding that the fractious Gusmao government was too unstable to continue. Just days later, however, Horta was seriously wounded during Reinado's so-called "coup" attempt that saw the former major shot dead at point blank range. (See "East Timor: Leaked autopsy report shows alleged ‘coup' leader Reinado shot at point-blank range")

Horta has since remained largely mute on the question of new elections, even as Gusmao's slender parliamentary majority has been further reduced. (In May, five parliamentarians with the Social Democratic Association of Timor withdrew from the coalition and pledged to form the next government with Fretilin.) Horta has also denounced Fretilin's planned "peace march", saying that he could not accept any protest aimed at "criticising the legitimacy of the government".

Gusmao has responded to Fretilin's proposed march with characteristic authoritarianism. In a September 28 speech broadcast on national television and radio, the prime minister declared: "I hear that you are preparing a ‘march of peace' to Dili. I will wait for you there and put you all in jail." Fretilin has accused Gusmao of placing Timor on the verge of dictatorship.

Whether the protest march will proceed remains to be seen--no date has yet been set. Mobilising tens of thousands of ordinary people is a very risky proposition for the Fretilin leadership, whose overarching concern is to maintain a stable economic environment. In 2006 Alkatiri and his colleagues finally chose to submit to the Gusmao-Canberra coup and hand over power rather than risk further instability by leading a movement against the Australian intervention. Now, amid persistently high unemployment and escalating inflation driven by rising fuel and rice prices, any movement of the working class, urban poor, and rural masses would quickly spill out of Fretilin's control.

The opposition's campaign against the government is centrally pitched towards Timorese business interests, foreign investors, and international governments.

Alkatiri has pledged that a new Fretilin administration would provide a more stable economic climate in Timor with significantly reduced public spending. Fretilin has denounced Gusmao for threatening the security of the Petroleum Fund. Established by the previous Alkatiri administration on the advice of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the Petroleum Fund (now worth about $3 billion) invests Timor's substantial oil and gas revenues in bonds and other assets on the world financial markets. Despite the country's appalling level of poverty and minimal social infrastructure, only a fraction of the oil and gas money is permitted to be spent in any given year. The fund is designed to obviate the need for Australia and other regional powers to spend aid money propping up the so-called independent state.

The Gusmao government first proposed an austerity budget, including cuts to pensions and reduced food rations, but then reversed course earlier this year in a desperate attempt to defuse popular opposition. The revised budget proposal more than doubles allocated public spending, with much of the additional money subsidising rice, petrol, and construction works. Less than $US400 million ought to be withdrawn from the Petroleum Fund this year under the officially estimated "sustainable income", but Gusmao has taken out an additional $US290 million to cover the budget deficit blow-out.

A leaked memo prepared for the World Bank and IMF in May expressed concern over these developments and warned against changes to the Petroleum Law regulating maximum yearly expenditure. Fretilin has made a direct appeal along the same lines. The opposition party has initiated a constitutional challenge to the proposed budget, forcing President Horta to postpone its promulgation until legal proceedings are finalised.

Alkatiri has also sought to curry favour with the regional powers, and in recent months has met with the governments of Portugal, Indonesia, the US, and others. In June, he went to Washington and spoke with US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Marciel, and Congressman David Price, chairman of the House Democracy Assistance Commission. The Fretilin leader also held discussions with senior executives and officials at the World Bank, US Agency for International Development, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, International Republican Institute, Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the Peterson Institute for International Economic Development.

A Fretilin press release boasted: "During the meetings Dr Alkatiri was praised for his leadership of the first constitutional government that established the foundations of an independent state—especially the Petroleum Fund, legal framework and functioning public administration—which enabled Timor-Leste to withstand the crisis of 2006 and allow a return to normalcy much faster than many expected."

Far from seeking to improve the lot of the impoverished population, Fretilin is advancing itself as a more responsible economic manager of the island's resources on behalf of the tiny local elite and the major powers.