Of guns and constitutions (3)


A photo titled Observer, of an East Timorese man at a market, taken by Joel Santos

For a long-time observer of East Timor, last night’s Four Corners program  made compelling viewing.   Liz Jackson presented pretty conclusive evidence that dismissed Interior Minister Rogerio Lobato was certainly behind at least some of the recent arming of civilian militia with high powered military weaponry. (Update – others obviously agree, because a warrant has just been issued for his arrest).  

But that’s hardly earth-shattering news of itself,  given that Lobato has been sacked.   More interesting were Jackson’s attempts to fit Prime Minister Alkatiri into the frame as part of the conspiracy to arm civilians.   It’s  very clear that both the Australian government and Timor Leste  President Xanana Gusmao and Defence and Foreign  Minister Jose Ramos Horta would very much like to be in a position to have Alkatiri charged with criminal offences arising from those events.   Jackson’s remarkable level of access to influential figures (e.g. Police Chief Paulo Martins)  had the fingerprints of Australian intelligence and Federal Police all over it.    I doubt that they would be talking to Jackson without a  “wink and a nod” from Australian official sources.    

As I canvassed in a previous post, it’s very clear that the President doesn’t have the power to dismiss the Prime Minister or government in the current situation.   The combination of Constitution sections 86 and 112 lists  the President’s powers in that regard exhaustively, and doesn’t include a power of dismissal in anything like the present circumstances.   However, under section 113 the President can suspend the Prime Minister (or any member of the government) if he is charged with a crime carrying more than 2 years imprisonment.

Sadly for those who believe that getting rid of Alkatiri is the key to restoring peace and stability in East Timor, Jackson didn’t go even close to presenting enough evidence for Alkatiri to be charged.     He was undoubtedly aware of Lobato’s actions in arming civilians by mid-May,  but apparently  neither said nor did anything about it.   Moreover, Alkatiri undoubtedly sent at least one text message to civilian  militia leader  “Commander” Rai Los, but its contents are not in themselves incriminating.    Alkatiri texted a message to Rai Los  that merely said “Where are you going?”.     However, the date of the message is interesting: 1 June, after the massacre of surrendering police (apparently) by some military forces, and after the Australian forces had arrived in the country.   Nevertheless, that’s nowhere near enough evidence  to sustain any sort of criminal charge.    

It raises the 64 million dollar question.   Is Alkatiri in fact complicit in the arming of civilian militias, but (unlike Lobato)  too smart to leave fingerprints?   Or is someone setting him up?   And who?  

There is at least some reason to suspect that Alkatiri might be a semi-innocent party  being set up by Lobato.   Although on one level they are close Fretilin colleagues, and Alkatiri resisted sacking Lobato  for as long as he could, on another level there is a subterranean rivalry between the two.   As my colleague Dennis Shoesmith  observes in a soon-to-be published monograph, dealing with the previous 2002 violence and civil unrest in East Timor:

According to a joint statement by the Civil Society Organizations in Timor Lorosa’e group, the violence was systematic and manifestly political, notably directed against Alkatiri and his family. The statement claims that agents aroused the crowd, attacking the prime minister and directing the violence against political targets. The rioters were provided with gasoline for arson and with transport. Some rioters were heard shouting “Oust Alkatiri!” “Paulo [Martins] resign!”   “Rog ´erio [Lobato] stay!”56 An Australian journalist who covered the riots claimed that “there is substantial evidence that powerful Fretilin officials from within the Interior Ministry were involved in trucking in protesters from rural areas and then inciting the rioters once the violence began.

However, the contrary view (that Alkatiri is anything but an innocent dupe) is also plausible.   Alkatiri is a long-time hardline Marxist-Leninist who undoubtedly sees Fretilin as the only legitimate party of government.   Fretilin only received 57% of the popular vote  in the 2001 elections for the  Constituent Assembly (which later became the Parliament in a dodgy deal between Fretilin and the UN), and would certainly garner a much lower vote if an election were held now.    It’s important to keep in mind that the  army is mostly loyal to President Gusmao and that only some elements of the police are/were loyal to Fretilin.   Police Chief Paulo Martins was a member of the police under Indonesian rule and is certainly not pro-Fretilin, hence in part his willingness to spill the beans on Lobato to Liz Jackson in last night’s Four Corners.   Some observers speculate that Fretilin had embarked on a ruthless campaign to retain government by implementing a  co-ordinated strategy of creating and arming civilian militias of “Easterners” whose job would be to intimidate people in areas unsympathetic to Fretilin from voting in the national elections due in May next year.

We need to remember that Alkatiri spent the entire 25 years of Indonesian occupation in Mozambique.   That was where he had much of his political and legal education.   Alkatiri forged and retains even today  strong links with the  Marxist-Leninist Frelimo  regime that took power in Mozambique in the wake of Portugal’s withdrawal in 1975.   Frelimo lost no time in implementing a one-party state system when it gained power:

When independence was achieved in 1975, the leaders of FRELIMO’s military campaign rapidly established a one-party state allied to the Soviet bloc and outlawed rival political activity. FRELIMO eliminated political pluralism, religious educational institutions, and the role of traditional authorities.

The new government, under president Samora Machel, gave shelter and support to South African (ANC) and Zimbabwean (ZANU) liberation movements while the governments of first Rhodesia and later apartheid South Africa fostered and financed an armed rebel movement in central Mozambique called the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO). Civil war, sabotage from neighboring states, and economic collapse characterized the first decade of Mozambican independence. Also marking this period were the mass exodus of Portuguese nationals, weak infrastructure, nationalization, and economic mismanagement.

Sound familiar?   Frelimo only reluctantly went along with imposition of a multi-party democratic constitution in 1990 towards the end of a 17 year civil war in which something like 1 million Mozambicans died.   It’s by no means implausible that a Timorese leader who cut his teeth in that sort of ruthless school of Marxism  might be prepared to do whatever it takes to preserve Fretilin rule, including somewhat ironically by taking a leaf out of the 1999 Indonesian playbook and  arming civilian militias to intimidate unsympathetic  citizens from voting.

PS – Given the breaking news of an arrest warrant having just  been issued for Lobato, we might find out sooner rather than later whether Alkatiri is implicated in creation of armed militias.   The less than fraternal relationship between the two should mean that it won’t be too difficult to strike a plea bargain with Lobato to get him to “shop” Alkatiri.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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15 years ago

I am no fan of Alkatiri but I am not sure if using Lobato to “shop” him is the best way to get rid of him without giving more cause for unrest.

derrida derider
derrida derider
15 years ago

You’d think the Mozambique experience would show a sensible person what not to do.

The appeasers in the Australian government who used to insist that independence would be an even worse disaster for the Timorese than occupation are starting to look prescient.

Paul W
15 years ago

Ken, agreed this was a great piece of journalism. Alkatiri’s comments suggest he’ll hang on no matter what. In the transcript of one part of the interview with him, he basically says just this.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
15 years ago

The ABC is telling me that Xanana Gusmao has written to Alkatiri in the last 24 hours asking him to resign, enclosing a video of the Four Corners program.

“Distinctly orchestrated feel” has taken on a new resonance, Ken.