East Timor in turmoil

Photo by by Jeffrey Kingston The attempted assassination of East Timor (Timor Leste) President Jose Ramos-Horta may well signal further turmoil in the fledgling, fragile country, becoming merely the latest grim event in two years of continuing chaos that shows little sign of ending soon. It is driven by dissatisfaction with the country’s largely ineffective leadership, compounded by rampant unemployment and an internally displaced population that could be as large as 10 percent.

Ramos-Horta underwent emergency surgery Monday in an Australian hospital after having been shot during an assassination attempt at his residence in the Timorese capital of Dili. The leader of the plot, former military police chief-turned-renegade-soldier Alfredo Reinado, was killed during the dawn shootout at Ramos-Horta's residence, a few hundred meters from Dili's beach road, just after the president took his usual morning seaside stroll.

The attempt on the Nobel laureate happened as more of Reinado's men launched a similar attack on Ramos-Horta's ally, Prime Minster Xanana Gusmao. The prime minister escaped unharmed, later to announce a state of emergency in response to what he described as a "failed coup attempt."

On one level, it is surprising that Reinado tried to assassinate Ramos-Horta, who called off an earlier mission to attempt to apprehend the rebel soldier and his followers, known as The Petitioners The group took to the thickly jungled hills after a 2006 "security crisis" left the army split and the police force shattered.

However, tensions had been ratcheting up recently between Reinado, a highly strung media-seeking showman, and East Timor 's current government. The renegade soldier blamed Gusmao – the president before 2007 elections resulted in him swapping roles with Ramos-Horta -- for fuelling the fires of the 2006 violence. Then, western soldiers led by Reinado were dismissed from the army after citing discrimination in favor of easterners.

The inability or unwillingness to resolve the Petitioner issue and/or apprehend Reinado meant that East Timor 's difficult military reform and police rebuilding programs remained compromised. Gusmao issued Reinado a "one last chance to surrender" ultimatum, to which the rebel responded by threatening to "lead his soldiers down to Dili." It sounded like characteristic bombast at the time, but he lived up to his words.

While the UN - through successive missions since 1999 - has bet its chips on East Timor becoming a nation-building success story, this dawn shootout highlights the challenges still facing a country ranked alongside Sudan, Iraq, Somalia and Zimbabwe in the Foreign Policy/Fund for Peace failing states list.

With offshore oil and gas coming on stream and revenues to be placed in a Norwegian-style escrow accounted trust fund, Timor has the US$100 million-a-month resource potential that could lay the bedrock for a viable state. But as the record shows, "the resource curse" has left oil-rich countries elsewhere mired in corruption, ethnic conflict and widespread poverty. The assassination attempts do not suggest that East Timor is set to buck the trend.

Reinado's swaggering and often farcical defiance of the rule of law won him significant support among East Timor's youth-bulged population, governed since independence by figures that fought or organized resistance to 25 years of brutal Indonesian rule, and whose internecine squabbling throughout that time remains extant.

But dissatisfaction with the same omnipresent cohort - either the FRETILIN socialists that governed from independence in 2002 until last year's elections, or the incumbent multiparty coalition under Gusmao as prime minister, means that East Timor's slow post-independence economic growth widens the potential audience for mavericks and dissenters.

Reinado, flawed cult hero that he was, may become a martyr in death. Graffiti around Dili attests to his popularity in life, and when Australian peacekeepers tried and failed to arrest him in the southern town of Manufahi in March 2007, Dili went into lockdown as gangs set up roadblocks and torched government buildings.

While the renegade soldiers have lost their self-styled enigmatic leader, how like-minded soldiers or opportunists - citing the perceived poor performance of East Timor's political elite and the various international actors - will view the coup attempt precedent remains to be seen.

Government officials in Dili are alarmed that the attack on Gusmao was led by Gastao Salsinha, the commander of soldiers who were sacked in 2006, prompting violent upheaval.

Salsinha and two carloads of his men escaped and are believed to have fled into the mountains. He is believed to still command dozens, possibly hundreds, of the heavily armed former soldiers. Other rumors are circulating that Reinado and Salsinha were not acting alone, after meeting with a number of MPs days ago.

Sympathetic elements among East Timor's tens of thousands of martial arts gang members, many of whom have clandestine political and security force links, may well take to the streets in protest of Reinado's death.

However, the former military police chief may just as easily have overshot the mark.

If independence heroes have seen their once-untouchable reputations decline of late, much of that can be attributed to the hard realities of partisan politics and the mundane technicalities of state-building in a prohibitive context.

Ramos-Horta was elected president with around 70 percent of the vote in May 2007, and most Reinado sympathizers likely voted for the president and later for the parties comprising Gusmao's coalition in the ensuing parliamentary polls.

However, that this once loyal soldier felt compelled to attempt a coup in this relatively homogenous, tiny half-island nation not only shows the protagonist's vainglory, but also points to a continuation of East Timor's shaky post-independence state, leaving political and security knotholes for the multiple international stakeholders.