WelCom News
A newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North Catholic Dioceses

An uneasy truce in Timor Leste’s streets as the country awaits government action

Cecily McNeill

An uneasy calm had settled over the Timor Leste capital, Dili, but people were still afraid to go back to their houses as Wel-com went to press a week ago.

I phoned a pastoral worker in Dili, Fr Peter Puthenkandan, last Saturday. He said the situation seemed to be settling down with the arrival of police and military from New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia and Portugal.

Houses were still being burned and there was still fighting between youth groups and gangs in the streets.

Many weapons – guns, machetes, catapults and bombs – had been confiscated.

People were scared to go back to their houses. Fr Peter said people were going home to cook and wash but returning to internally displaced people’s [IDP] camps at night. This put a strain on food and water supplies and sanitation in the town.

He believed the issue which sparked the riots – the prime minister, Mari Alkatiri’s dismissal of around 600 soldiers after their protest about alleged discrimination against easterners in the army by mostly western officers – has been blown out of proportion.

The incident sparked a demonstration which was peaceful until the end when violence broke out. But the grievances were not addressed and they have escalated, fuelled by a brooding resentment from the failure to redress grievances existing from the bloody independence referendum of 1999.

Other factors included personal vendettas and jealousies, a wish for revenge following the violence after the referendum and, more particularly, massive unemployment among young men and an impatience with the slow progress of change.

The foreign minister, Jose Ramos Horta has asked the United Nations to appoint a commission to investigate the 28 April incident. Fr Peter said the government was slow to act and he saw this as a factor.

‘They established the commission only after things were out of control,’ he said.

Discontent with the government increased when the soldiers who had been dismissed, presented a petition to the parliament.

The prime minister ordered shooting at the places where the petitioners were hiding. The East Timor military blocked the road to the area, so that even the president’s passage was barred.

Official reports say only two or three people were killed but rumours put the figure at nearer 160.

During the summit meeting of 17-19 May two people volunteered to replace the secretary-general and the president of Fretilin, the main parliamentary party. They asked that the voting be by secret ballot but the president of the parliament ruled that this was unconstitutional and voting should be by a show of hands. This was seen as intimidating and this sparked another riot.

‘My personal understanding is that they are not being heard and there has been no response,’ Fr Peter said.

Meanwhile Caritas has been distributing non-food items to six IDP camps around Dili. These included mosquito nets, soap and women’s kits. Food items were delivered late last month when agencies started setting up the camps.

Anna Sussmilch of Caritas reported that more than 100,000 IDPs were seeking safety in Catholic church buildings in Dili.

For more info: Anna Sussmilch 04 496 1742 or 021 528 071.