John M. Miller is National Coordinator of the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network, PO Box 21873, Brooklyn, NY 11201
On February 11, the President of Timor-Leste (also known as East Timor) was taking his regular morning walk when shooting broke out at his home. President Jose Ramos-Horta quickly headed back and was shot twice. A short while later, the Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao was also attacked; he escaped unharmed. Two of the attackers were killed, including Major Alfredo Reinado, the leader of an armed band of rebel soldiers. After multiple surgeries, Ramos-Horta, co-winner of the 1996 Nobel peace prize, is expected to make a full recovery.
Much about these events remains unknown. They go back at least two years, when nearly half of Timor's small military went AWOL in protest over alleged discrimination based on region of origin. This group was known as the "petitioners." A protest march became a riot, during which several people were killed. Reinado, then head of the military police, rebelled, saying he would defend the unarmed petitioners, bringing his fighters and his weapons with him. Within weeks, three dozen lay dead and the government called for international assistance, which arrived in the form of Australian troops and an expanded UN presence. Some 100,000 people, a tenth of the population, fled or lost their homes.
Reinado was arrested, but escaped and taunted the government with an evolving set of demands and threats, becoming a folk hero to some. By the time of the February attack, negotiations for his surrender and to resolve the issues of the petitioners were said to be going well, making the exact intentions of Reinado that morning unclear. Rumors are plentiful; facts can be harder to come by.
Signs of Growth
Despite the violence and much loose talk about Timor-Leste's being a failed state (it became independent in May 2002), its new institutions have shown resilience. Unlike in the crisis of 2006, constitutional processes were largely followed this time. A "State of Emergency" was formally approved by Parliament. However, the creation of a joint military and police operation to hunt down the remaining armed rebels, with the military in charge, appears to violate the constitution, which confines the military to national defense. A comprehensive security review mandated after the 2006 crisis is supposed to clarify their respective roles. Recent events have led some to call on Timor-Leste to reconsider its standing army. In 1998, the resistance coalition had proposed that the country do without one. However, the passage of an as-yet-unimplemented conscription law would seem to favor an expanded military. It is not clear how training more people to use weapons will enhance peace or reconciliation.
Credible elections for president and parliament were held last year and the hope is that the new government will be able to deal with many of the country's problems, such as widespread poverty, an epidemic of violence against women, and high youth unemployment. About 70,000 people have remained displaced since 2006.
Ramos-Horta and Gusmao are the two best internationally known East Timorese citizens, and while they have lost some of their luster within the country following the events of 2006, the attacks on them have shattered many ordinary Timorese people's confidence in their hard-won independence. The events of 2006 also brought forth mea culpas from the international community about premature withdrawals of support for the young country, and how training failures may have led to the breakdown. How the expanded UN mission will do remains to be seen, but Australia's refusal to place its soldiers under UN command has contributed to distrust of Australia among many Timorese.
Ramos-Horta overwhelmingly won the presidency in two rounds of voting last year. He had travelled the world on behalf of the Timorese resistance since the invasion. Gusmao had led the resistance since the early 1980s. Ramos-Horta, Gusmao, and most of the government's current leaders represent an older generation of leadership.
A Traumatic Past
Reinado, like many Timorese, was deeply traumatized by Indonesia's illegal 1975 invasion and occupation. As a child he was forced to serve as an Indonesian military porter in Timor-Leste and observed many atrocities, as he testified to Timor's truth commission.
The failure to achieve justice and accountability for many recent and past crimes -- including those crimes committed by and against Reinado -- has fostered a climate of impunity in Timor-Leste. Up to 200,000 were killed as result of Indonesia's US-backed invasion and occupation. Timor-Leste's judicial system remains underdeveloped, and Timor's security forces have been accused of human rights violations.
Outlaw behavior, official and unofficial, is reinforced by a sense
of impunity. Too many believe that they will not be held accountable
for violent crimes which destabilize and further traumatize the
country's population. This sense of impunity is only reinforced
by the failure of the UN, US, Indonesia, Timor-Leste and other
governments to achieve accountability for crimes against humanity
committed in Timor-Leste between 1975 and 1999, when Indonesia
withdrew in a last burst of destruction following a UN-conducted