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East Timor: Timeline of the Coup Part III
Brian Guerin
East Timor’s Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri resigned on June 26th amid an unrelenting campaign backed by the Australian government media for his removal. The announcement came less than 24 hours after a meeting of the ruling Fretilin party had refused to bow to demands by President Xanana Gusmao to sack the “illegal leadership” of Alkatiri and party president Francisco “Lu-Olu” Guterres. Gusmao had dramatically threatened to resign if his demands were not carried out, but backed off over the weekend. [1]

Fretilin’s central committee appealed to both Gusmao and Alkatiri to remain in their positions, but Alkatiri immediately was pressurized by Horta, a close Gusmao ally, who had announced his intention to resign “because the government is not functioning properly.” Australia Foreign Minister Alexander Downer immediately declared that he would be “very sorry” if Horta resigned, stating: “He [Ramos-Horta] has been a good friend and very effective foreign minister.”A factor in Alkatiri’s decision was the prospect of legal charges after the “hit squad” allegation aired in the Australian media, and the follow-up arrest of former interior minister Rogerio Lobato, who was detained by Australian soldiers last week. [2] [3]

Alkatiri’s resignation, however, was not primarily triggered by this campaign for his dismissal, but by the fact that Fretilin’s own supporters were entering the fray, raising the prospect of a descent into civil war. Fretilin leaders have been blocking members and supporters from staging counter-rallies in opposition to the relatively small anti-Alkatiri protests orchestrated by Gusmao, Ramos-Horta, opposition politicians and various rebel police and army officers. On June 26th, it was reported that 18 truckloads of Fretilin supporters were heading toward Dili to support the government. [4]
 In a brief press statement, he declared his willingness to step aside, to prevent “any deepening of the crisis” and “believing that all militants and sympathizers of Fretilin will understand and support this position.” A successor remains to be appointed, but Fretilin, the primary national liberation movement in East Timor, will inevitably confront a similar campaign if it fails to select someone acceptable to Gusmao and his Australian handlers. [5]

To ensure that his resignation is final, it was announced that Alkatiri would be charged with crimes against the state and imprisonment for up to 15 years. Chief Prosecutor Longuinhos told the newspaper The Australian: “It’s related to the matter of him having knowledge of the weapons distribution and not doing anything about it.”  Even if it were true that Alkatiri and Lobato were involved in distributing weapons to Fretilin supporters, which is highly unlikely, the situation involved a collapse of the country’s security forces and threats of civil war by the rebel leadership. There has been no suggestion that any of the pro-Australian rebels, such as Major Alfredo Reinado, will be prosecuted for sedition, treason or other crimes against the state. [6] [7]

Speaking from Indonesia, Howard could scarcely conceal his delight at Alkatiri’s departure. “It seems to me to be part of the process of working out the difficulties, resolving the impass, breaking the logjam. To that extent I am pleased.” In a fine display of hypocrisy, he added that he had no view on any proposed successor for Alkatiri: “It’s not for me to nominate the prime minister of that country; it’s an independent sovereign country.” [8]

Under the cloak of preventing a move towards civil war in East Timor, the Australian government has been systematically undermining East Timor’s sovereignty. At the centre of the political chaos which erupted in April and May are dubious figures such as Reinado, who trained at the Australian Defence Academy in 2005, and who has close political associations with Ramos-Horta.
The dispatch of Australian warships which took place on May 12th, was undertaken without informing the East Timorese government, but action was withheld until the outcome of a challenge to Alkatiri at a Fretilin congress on May 17-19th. [9]

Only when Fretilin delegates overwhelmingly endorsed Alkatiri’s leadership did Canberra exploit the escalating violence engineered by his political opponents and “rebel” soldiers as the means for arm-twisting Dili into “inviting” an Australian-led military intervention. [10]

Even as the troops were landing in East Timor, Howard provocatively declared on May 26th that the country “has not been well-governed.” This was the signal for the Australian media barrage demonizing Alkatiri as “widely hated,” autocratic and a Marxist, responsible for the escalating crisis. If necessary, Gusamo had to sack the prime minister.Alkatiri initially refused to resign, and Gusmao lacked the constitutional power to remove him. The propanganda campaign was simultaneously shifted and intensified. Proceeding with constant vilification of Alkatiri, Australian journalists and his political opponents created various allegations. No charge proved too incredible: rebel leader Lieutenant Gastao Salsinha told a reporter that Alkatiri was responsible for the massacre of 60 people, but refused to reveal the location of this supposed mass grave. [11]

At the same time, Gusmao and Ramos-Horta, with the support of the Australian media, mounted an East Timorese version of the US-backed “colour revolutions” in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Hundreds of anti-Alkatiri supporters were brought into Dili in trucks, under the protection of Australian troops, to demonstrate outside government buildings. Images of these “protests” have been broadcast around the world as “proof” of Alkatiri’s unpopularity and the need to remove him. [12]
Australia’s objection to the Alkatiri government is not its supposed “Marxism.” The real hostility is towards a government that attempted to follow a non-aligned political and economic policy, in however weak and uncoordinated a fashion, in order to strengthen its incredibly weak and precarious position, by playing the various powers off against each other. The Alkatiri government, therefore, following formal independence in 2002, had strengthened ties with the former colonial power, Portugal, sought economic assistance from China and Japan and received aid from China.

In relation to Australian, and by extension American, imperial aims in East Timor, the “crime” of Altakiri is that he did not follow orders and attempted to balance competing interests against each other. Above all, he refused to bow to pressure immediately to Australian orders and hand over the bulk of the Timor Sea oil and gas, which is East Timor’s by international law. In the Australian issue of 27th June, commentator Mark Dodd stated: “Alkatiri’s departure should spell good news for Australian companies wanting to do business in Dili. Too many were scared away when he was in charge.” In its editoral, The Australian, in the forefront of the campaign to remove Alkatiri, prophesied that the Australian-led occupation would last indefinitely, declaring: “Australia will have to keep troops on the ground for the foreseeable future in East Timor.”
With Alkatiri removed from power, Australia has greatly tightened its grip over East Timor. Retired Portuguese General Alfredo Assuncao declared in an interview: “What interests the Australians most is oil and gas…So what better way to control these enormously rich resources than to be physically present and control the country’s political system?”

Assuncao described Australia as: “the main enemy of the country [East Timor],” seeking to “control everything and everyone.” [13]

[2]    Ibid.
[5]    Ibid.
[6]    Ibid.
[9]    Ibid.
[10]  Ibid.
[11]  Ibid.
[12]  Ibid.
[13]  Ibid.

 © The Tara Foundation, 2006