East Timor drama had no hidden agenda

East Timor is struggling to maintain its newly won nationhood in a hotbed of political claim and counterclaim over the cause of the violence which erupted last April and June. Many Dili residents were forced out of their homes for fear of being burnt out

Mark Aarons

East Timor remains unstable, although much calmer than in May and June when it was racked with civil strife. Non-aligned Prime Minister Jose Ramos-Horta has begun to put the government on a stable course, given the shambles he inherited from Fretilin’s Mari Alkatiri.

He has started to streamline the cumbersome bureaucracy that clogs daily life and commerce.

He is trying to get money and services to the rural poor but is caught between unforgiving forces which crave victory in next year’s election.

Former military police commander and prison escapee Alfredo Reinado has attacked Ramos-Horta as a stooge of Alkatiri’s Fretilin faction. Reinado has been supported by the leader of the dissident soldiers, whose sacking caused the upheaval. The opposition parties, who support Ramos-Horta as prime minister, have also undermined him because he depends on Fretilin to govern.

The hardline Fretilin faction wants to be rid of Ramos-Horta so it can return to business as usual. Its likely candidate is deputy prime minister Estanislau da Silva, a capable administrator who shares Alkatiri’s politics.

This leaves Ramos-Horta without a party and dependent on his alliance with the president, former guerilla commander, Xanana Gusmao. These two represent the best chance of thwarting the narrow, self-interested ambitions of the competing forces and forming a national unity government that puts the country’s long-term interests ahead of factional and personal ambitions.

As if Timorese politics were not fragile enough, an extraordinary campaign is being waged against Gusmao by journalist John Martinkus in the web journal New Matilda and The Age in Melbourne. Martinkus made his reputation reporting the bloody events before and after the August 1999 independence plebiscite.

Martinkus has been the main propagandist supporting the conspiracy theory that Alkatiri was removed by a coup. After months of failing to name names, he now insinuates that Gusmao was behind this supposed coup. In earlier articles he claimed to have confirmed Alkatiri’s allegations of repeated coup attempts, supposedly involving approaches to senior army commanders by opposition and Catholic Church leaders and two foreigners whose nationalities could not be revealed due to ‘the sensitivity of the information’.

These unsubstantiated claims were recently repeated on SBS’s Dateline. In a lollipop interview, Martinkus allowed Alkatiri to repeat the allegation, although it was noticeable that he could not say whether the foreigners were Australians or Americans. Alkatiri and Martinkus cannot even name the Timorese ‘traitors’ or the foreigners who supposedly suborned them.

More to the point, in an ABC TV interview last May, Alkatiri insisted that a coup conspiracy existed but pointedly said he did not know who was involved. However, he was sure that Gusmao was not.

Yet Martinkus now indicts Gusmao. In recent articles he has claimed that a letter written by the president to Reinado last May suggests they were in league to violently overthrow Alkatiri.

Furthermore, Martinkus has used an unsigned statement attributed to imprisoned former police commander Abilio Mesquita to allege that Gusmao ordered attacks against the army commander-in-chief. Mesquita alleges the president was behind the violence that led to Alkatiri’s demise.

The facts do not support these fantastic claims that the man who led the resistance to Indonesia has become a traitor. It is Martinkus’s journalism that should be questioned, not Gusmao’s patriotism. For example, Martinkus has claimed that Gusmao’s ‘letter’ to Reinado indicates that the president supported Reinado’s violence.

On the evidence available to me, Gusmao’s three notes to Reinado in late May (written on ‘with compliments’ slips) ordered him and his supporters into cantons, consistent with agreements reached with the Australian forces sent to help restore order.

Martinkus has selectively quoted from one note while ignoring two others, one of which explicitly ordered Reinado to the town of Gleno, a designated canton for the dissidents. He has also ignored Gusmao’s written orders insisting that Reinado and other dissidents surrender their weapons. It seems that Martinkus had access to all these documents but chose to use only the parts that fitted his fanciful theories.

While we must await the report of the international Special Inquiry Commission on the causes of the violence, there seems no reason to doubt that Gusmao was simply carrying out his duties as president to calm the situation, not using the rebels against Alkatiri, as implied by Martinkus.

Finally, there is Martinkus’ reliance on the absurd ‘statement’ of Mesquita that Gusmao was behind the violence, which also implicates Ramos-Horta and the bishop of Baucau by placing them at a meeting at which Gusmao allegedly discussed the need to overthrow Alkatiri.

Reliable commentators have dismissed Mesquita as a liar who wants immunity for his own crimes.

Australian journalist Jill Jolliffe has labelled Mesquita’s statement as demonstrably false and pointed out that it was doing the rounds in Dili for quite some time before Martinkus reported it in The Age and New Matilda. Every other journalist ignored Mesquita’s claims as lacking veracity.

Martinkus is supported by some Australian leftists who believe that Alkatiri was the victim of malign Western forces (the Australian-American defence intelligence cabal) which linked up with Timorese ‘reactionaries’ hoping for an anti-Fretilin government that would do the bidding of Canberra and Washington.

No such case exists, and Martinkus and his supporters are actually damaging the future stability and development of the nation they claim passionately to support. Martinkus’s journalistic credibility has, however, been undermined by these unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.

In the end, his articles will be seen for what they are: propaganda for Alkatiri and his clique, who have thoroughly failed their people and now wish to make a comeback by concocting a conspiracy theory blaming Western imperialism for their political self-demise and by defaming the hero of Timor’s independence as a traitor to the cause he led for so long against almost impossible odds.

Mark Aarons is the co-author of East Timor: A Western Made Tragedy.