By: Simon Roughneen

et-jose

 

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.