by canberra boy
Sat May 27th, 2006 at 12:11:38 PM EST
Violence appeared to be spiralling out of control on Saturday in Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste (East Timor), despite the arrival of more than a thousand troops from Australia, Malaysia and New Zealand since Thursday afternoon.
The present problems have grown from a variety of internal tensions in the new country, which have become more and more openly expressed since the withdrawal of the UN peacekeeping force in the middle of last year.
In the last few days, army loyalists have been fighting rebel soldiers and elements of the police in and around the capital. At least 20 people, including up to 12 police, were shot dead by loyalist soldiers as unarmed police tried to surrender in a UN-brokered deal on Thursday. A mother and her four children burned to death when seven homes were torched in a Dili suburb the same day. It appears that ethnic gangs are fighting each other in the streets.
The current violence has exploded following dissatisfaction within Timor-Leste's army over alleged regional favouritism in promotions. In March, 600 of the army's 1400 soldiers were sacked by the Government when they deserted their barracks. At the end of April, a rally in support of the sacked troops turned into a riot when security forces fired on the crowd. Since then, many Dili residents have fled the town.
The clashes have been growing throughout May, to the point where open fighting between rebel and loyalist soldiers and the police has broken out in the last week.
Timor-Leste has had a sad history of violence. The colonial administration by Portugal broke down in 1974, and East Timor was declared independent by Fretilin (The Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor) in November 1975. Indonesia invaded East Timor in December 1975, and ran a regime of bloody repression until 1999, when a UN-sanctioned vote on independence was carried on 30 August despite Indonesian intimidation. Following this vote, Timorese militias organised by Indonesia's army went on a rampage which left a thousand people dead while Indonesian forces watched from the sidelines. A staggering 100,000 to 250,000 people are believed to have been killed during the Indonesian occupation, out of an initial population of about 600,000.
Indonesia withdrew its forces and Australia led an international force into East Timor to restore order in September 1999, following which the nation was placed under a UN Transitional Administration.
The Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste became independent on 20 May 2002, with former Falintil (Fretilin's armed wing) leader Xanana Gusmao as President and Mari Alkatiri as Prime Minister. The last peacekeeping forces left in the middle of last year, but a sizable UN assistance mission remained. Many observers have since said that the withdrawal of peacekeeping troops was premature.
Timor-Leste is the world's poorest country, its population of about one million people having a per capita GDP of about $400. Much of the population relies on subsistence agriculture, although the country exports coffee and sandalwood. Agreement with Australia in mid-2005 over revenue sharing from offshore petroleum fields has opened up a substantial revenue flow, although this does little to provide employment.
The divisions currently being exposed in Timor-Leste have a number of origins. The one million people speak a staggering 15 indigenous languages. The security forces are composed both of Indonesian-trained staff and former guerrilla fighters. The governing party, Fretilin, is said to be divided between groups who spent the Indonesian occupation years in Australia or Mozambique, or who remained in Timor. And the bloodshed of the last few days now appears to have a communal basis, with fighting in Dili's streets between those who come from the Eastern and the Western ends of the country.
The Australian media are playing up supposed disagreement between the Prime Minister and the President, who as commander-in-chief has indicated this week that he is assuming direct control of the armed forces. Prime Minister Alkatiri has spoken several times of a coup. To me, it looks very sadly like a mixture of many factors, including the fact that unemployment is probably more than 50%. I am hoping, perhaps unrealistically, that Timor-Leste will not go down the well-travelled post-colonial path which ends in chaos. The one good point is that this, and the previous deployment from 1999 to 2005, is an example of Australian overseas military intervention which I can actually support.
Cross-posted at Booman Tribune and Flogging the Simian.