Reaping the whirlwind

Horta in happier times – from reesa lee at Flickr

Poor East Timor.  Its President Jose Ramos-Horta lies in a serious but stable condition in Royal Darwin Hospital just across the creek from where I’m writing this, having been operated on for 2 1/2 hours last night to remove 3 bullets from his abdomen.

Meanwhile, a state of emergency has been declared in Dili, extra Australian troops have landed and HMAS Perth lies in Dili harbour.  The two pieces of positive news to emerge from yesterday’s events were that rebel leader Alfredo Reinado was killed in the assassination attempt on Horta, while Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao escaped uninjured from a parallel assassination attempt by the rebels.

These events no doubt came as a bolt from the blue for most Australians; East Timor had faded from the public radar after last year’s successful elections which installed Horta and Gusmao as the new President and PM respectively.  But for close observers it was no surprise at all.  Indeed an excellent article by Neil Campbell in the equally excellent openDemocracy only last week explained the background to yesterday’s events with startling clarity:

It is not just foreigners but the Timorese themselves who face pressures and demands from criminals. The country’s security situation has been deeply degraded since the 2006 crisis, in which thirty-eight people were killed, the police suspended, and the army cut by half. Much-needed reforms of the two institutions – promised by the president elected in May 2007, José Ramos-Horta, and crucial for wider economic and social development – remain on hold. Meanwhile, East Timor (as the country is also known) is being held to ransom by an army-deserter with an internet connection.

The former military-police commander, Alfredo Reinado, commands his own mini-fiefdom from his retreat in the hills of Ermera district. The semi-coherent tirade he posted on the internet in late December 2007 – one of a series – accuses Timor-Leste’s prime minister (and ex-president), independence hero Xanana Gusmão, of “masterminding” the 2006 crisis.

Reinado is an abrasive symptom of Timor-Leste’s predicament. He played a key role in the crisis before being arrested by international peacekeepers in July 2006, but has been on the run since he walked out of prison a month later. In February 2007, Australian troops (from the International Stabilisation Force 1 which they lead) attempted to capture him after he “borrowed” guns from border police; they killed five of Reinado’s men, but he again escaped. Since then, there has been a legal fight between international authorities and the Dili government about Reinado, pitting the United Nations-funded judge, Ivo Rosa (who has asked the international forces to arrest him) against José Ramos-Horta (who has asked them not to). For the moment at least, the internationals are listening to the president.

The problem for the government is that Reinado has won over to his side many of the so-called “petitioners”: those who presented the petition of complaints about conditions within and management of the army that sparked the April-June 2006 violence. The leader of the original group of petitioners, Gastao Salsinha, now calls himself Reinado’s “lieutenant”. This has complicated the government’s strategy of devising a strategy that deals separately with the leader and the group.

Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, scene of the 1991 massacre by Indonesian forces (as opposed to more recent events where East Timorese massacred each other) – from wang 6384 at Flickr

It’s a fair bet that Ramos-Horta is lying in bed at RDH this morning and contemplating the folly of his conduct in asking/instructing Australian forces to treat Reinado with kid gloves.  However, it’s a symptom of a much wider and longstanding malaise afflicting successive East Timorese leaders: a cavalier and even reckless attitude towards the rule of law.

Many readers will remember the record of members of the former Fretilin government in arming civilian militias in the leadup to the May 2006 violence which resulted in Australian and UN troops being hastily recalled to the troubled new nation.  However, far fewer would be aware of then President Xanana Gusmao’s role in precipitating those events. The reference in the above quote to Reinado’s claim that Gusmao “masterminded” the 2006 crisis is to remarks the then President made not long before the violence broke out.  As Lefty E observes at LP in relation to the later United Nations Independent Special Commission of Inquiry for Timor-Leste report into the violence, released late that year:

The report also finds that President Xanana Gusmao had made divisive statements in which contributed to the rise of East/ West tensions in an off-the-cuff address to the nation on March 23, and further, and that he should not have communicated directly with rebel troops during the crisis. There was, however, no evidence to support claims that he was directly implicated in the events, nor in the actions of Major Reinados group.

In my understanding, what Gusmao actually did was to express sympathy with the (mostly “westerner” or “Kaladi”) striking “petitioner” soldiers and tell them they were getting a raw deal from the Fretilin government, while almost simultaneously saying that “easterners” (or “firaku”) had been the ones who had fought the tough battles against the Indonesian occupiers while “westerners” mostly took no part.   Of course, both statements were essentially true – the petitioners were getting a raw deal, and they and most other Kaladi certainly weren’t prominent in the resistance to Indonesian rule, but for the President actually to say so was throwing petrol on an already hot political bonfire. Nevertheless, Reinado was drawing a long bow to suggest that Gusmao “masterminded” the violence, although his words were certainly a significant precipitating factor.   They certainly represented a disastrously ill-judged attempt on the part of the President at destabilising and undermining support for the Fretilin government of PM Mari Alkatiri. 

Taken together with varying degrees of complicity by Fretilin figures, including Alkatiri, in the militia violence and actions by police and military during and before the 2006 outbreak, Gusmao’s conduct and Horta’s softly-softly approach to Reinado and his followers indicate a pattern of grossly expedient behaviour on the part of senior Timorese leaders that simply isn’t conducive to development of a stable democratic country operating under the rule of law ((I should note that there are many versions of the “rule of law” concept.  Indeed, in the hands of quite a few writers of neo-libertarian persuasion – like PJ O’Rourke – it can become not much more than a content-free synonym for “truth, justice and the American way”.  Nevertheless, a Head of State who instructs military forces not to execute an arrest warrant against a serious offender, issued by a judge acting within his legal and constitutional authority, would seem to be a significant breach of just about any definition of rule of law. ~ KP))

One can certainly understand Horta’s reluctance to authorise the Australian and NZ troops to pursue Reinado aggressively, given that the latter has (or rather had) unified many of the “petitioner” troops under his command.  Aiming at a peaceful resolution must have seemed like a good idea to Horta in view of the clear danger of ongoing and permanently entrenched division and civil strife, especially given the large number of “petitioner” rebels who are still armed and at large while East Timorese armed forces and police remain weak and fragmented. 

Moreover, moderate East Timorese leaders still aspire to the successful “truth and reconciliation” model pursued by the ANC government in South Africa.   What Ramos-Horta appears to have overlooked is that the South African reconciliation process occurred after the various rebel forces had demobilised, not while they remained armed and hiding in the jungle commanded by an arrogant and ambitious leader making increasingly bellicose demands. 

I don’t mean to minimise the complexity of the situation in East Timor.  There are no easy answers.  But, if nothing else, the events of the last 24 hours will hopefully have reminded both Gusmao and Horta that there is a faint but clear line in the sand dividing sensible pragmatic realism in leadership from flagrant disregard for the rule of law.  If a government crosses it too often, even with the best of intentions, it will inevitably reap the whirlwind as Horta discovered painfully yesterday.    

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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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16 years ago

I think we’re only just beginning to appreciate why the Indos gave up ET without a shot fired in anger. You want them you silly skips, then you’re welcome to them. Byeeee!

16 years ago

The bit that really cracks ne up is that with the Canadians threatening to pull out of the graveyard of empires, through a distinct lack of enthusiastic empires and now us stuck with the Indo’s perennial problem, Iraqis are now turning on AQ and we’re pissing off. You couldn’t make this stuff up if your surname was Brooks!

James Farrell
James Farrell
16 years ago

Thanks, Ken, for helping to make sense of this baffling saga.

Nicholas Gruen
16 years ago

Thx for the post Ken.

16 years ago

Certainly good background Ken but perhaps cold comfort knowing we traded away a perfectly good oil treaty to try and make sense of baffling sagas as they say. Certainly noone could accuse Oz foreign policy of being all about oil now thank goodness.


[…] susceptible to physical attack, but when a person is president who is there to tell me what to do. Despite what Ken Parish suggests, who otherwise no doubt is correct about the necessary application of the rule of law, there was […]

16 years ago

Thanks for this post Ken.

It would be interesting to see if the allegations of UN troops being somewhat slack on the job when the shootings occurred are also true (me thinks yes…but could there also be some pay off involved?) Conspiracies conspiracies.

16 years ago

Hopefully Ramos-Horta will make a full recovery. Good post Ken.