East Timor’s parliament is “corrupt and ineffective,” Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao has an alcohol problem, while former Premier Mari Alkatiri is “arrogant and abusive,” according to East Timorese President Jose Ramos Horta.
President Horta’s caustic private observations on East Timorese politics have been revealed in leaked United States Embassy cables that have been published by WikiLeaks.
However, the president doesn’t emerge unscathed, with the Catholic Church recorded as sharply criticizing the veteran East Timorese leader. One senior Vatican official is reported by US diplomats as observing that “Ramos Horta started with good intentions but had let his Nobel Prize go to his head,” and probably viewed an October 2006 meeting with Pope Benedict XVI “largely in terms of how it could help him politically at home.”
Although all the US diplomatic cables leaked to WikiLeaks were released two weeks ago, 390 reports from the American Embassy in Dili have not attracted media attention until now, notwithstanding their canvassing of East Timor’s prospects as a “failed state” sandwiched between Australia and Indonesia.
Horta, described as a “legendary international negotiator,” was particularly candid in his discussions with American diplomats, providing detailed commentary at critical political moments, explaining his own thinking and offering his views on the intentions and motivations of others, especially Gusmao and Alkatiri.
Describing “all key political players as his old friends or acquaintances, going back many years,” Horta describes Gusmao as "arrogant, but he likes to pretend to be humble, unlike Alkatiri, who doesn’t even pretend to be anything but arrogant."
In discussions with US diplomats Horta makes clear his admiration for Gusmao, the leader of East Timor’s clandestine resistance during the Indonesian occupation, but expresses increasing reservations about his friend’s performance in political office.
In May 2008, in the course of a cable that discussed strains Gusmao’s “heavy-handed leadership style,” the US Embassy reported East Timorese parliamentary contacts as suggesting that the Prime Minister “may have an alcohol problem which is impairing his relations with others.” The embassy added that “during a May 5 meeting with [US Embassy officers], James Dunn, author and long-time observer of Timor, reported the Prime Minister angered President Ramos-Horta by turning up ‘visibly drunk’ at a reception in honor of Prince Albert of Monaco on April 6.”
Horta is sharply critical of Alkatiri, whom he replaced as prime minister in June 2006, describing Alkatiri as “arrogant and abusive,” and suggesting that "the secret to knowing Alkatiri" involved “understanding his ethnic Yemeni roots, which are different from those of most Timorese, and his years of exile in Africa.”
“Ramos Horta noted that if Yemenis are disliked in Indonesia by Javanese Muslims, ‘imagine in a Catholic country,’ the embassy reported. “He also noted Alkatiri’s dour personality, which is different from the average Timorese. The population here likes to smile and he never does, not even for pretense."
The leaked cables further record Horta’s contempt for East Timor’s parliament, which he privately dismissed as “corrupt and ineffective” after MPs in September 2009 criticized his overseas travel.
The president, “known to hold himself and his international credentials, including a Nobel Peace Prize, in high regard,” summoned foreign government representatives in Dili and “barely suppressing his anger, told diplomats the parliament was ‘playing with fire’ by playing political games with him. This parliament was corrupt and ineffective, Ramos-Horta charged, and needed to be cleaned up and ‘taught a lesson’ in the coming months.”
The cables provide a detailed account of events leading to Alkatiri’s June 2006 resignation, under the threat of dismissal by then President Gusmao, as mob violence and looting flared in Dili.
Gusmao was “particularly insistent” that Alkatiri had to resign or else be immediately dismissed.
In the midst of the crisis the US Embassy reported: “Ramos-Horta spoke candidly about what he regarded as the causes of the current situation. … [He] said the President was ready to dismiss Alkatiri last week, but that he had persuaded the President ‘not to dismiss the government in the midst of the security crisis. I told Xanana; let’s not take any imprudent actions. We are closing in on him.’ Nevertheless, he noted that the president is absolutely determined to dismiss Alkatiri, primarily because of evidence that has been presented to the President of Alkatiri’s personal involvement in distributing weapons, including some that were allegedly to have been used to kill people.”
Gusmao eventually secured Alkatiri’s resignation following the broadcast of an ABC TV Four Corners documentary which contained allegations that linked the prime minister to a militia group that claimed Alkatiri and Interior Minister Rogerio Lobato gave them money and weapons and directed them to kill certain Alkatiri opponents.
Following a meeting with Gusmao on June 19, 2006, the US Ambassador reported “the president said that tomorrow morning he will send Alkatiri a videotape or DVD of tonight’s [Four Corners] program. … The President will also tell Alkatiri, either by letter or by phone, that although he does not wish to prejudge Alkatiri’s guilt or innocence pending the outcome of judicial proceedings, there is enough evidence that ‘I can no longer have confidence in you.’ He will therefore ask that Alkatiri immediately resign as Prime Minister.”
The US Ambassador also reported that Gusmao moved to secure the support of East Timorese military leader Brigadier General Taur Matan Ruak.
The cables also reveal that the Australian Defense Force contingent in East Timor was directly involved in the political maneuvering.
In a paragraph classified secret, the US Ambassador reported that: “The president said he had discussed briefly with ADF Brigadier General Mick Slater, the [Joint Task Force] commander, the possibility of dismissing Alkatiri, and that he had had several recent meetings with other senior ADF officers to lay out his plan in detail. These officers had raised no objections to the plan and seemed to understand and accept it. Tomorrow morning the President will meet with General Slater to present the detailed plan including the timetable.”
In an additional comment, the Embassy noted that “ADF sources have suggested at various times to [Embassy officers] that replacing Alkatiri might be a step toward restoring stability in East Timor.” The Embassy also reported that it had received “a credible report (please strictly protect) that Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer called the Australian Broadcasting Company and made an unsuccessful ‘demand to see the evidence’ that would be presented on Four Corners program about Alkatiri and the armed group.”
Alkatiri eventually tendered his resignation on June 26 and Horta was appointed by Gusmao as prime minister. Both leaders quickly approved an increased Australian troop deployment to suppress civil disorder in Dili. The allegations against Alkatiri, strenuously denied by the former prime minister, were not tested in court. Horta was subsequently elected as President and Gusmao appointed as prime minister heading a coalition government following East Timor’s June 2007 elections.
The US Embassy cables also shed light on the Catholic Church’s deep involvement in East Timorese politics, with political leaders described by senior Vatican officials as “incompetent” and “not serious.”
A 2005 US diplomatic report from Rome confirms the active role of East Timor’s two Catholic bishops in orchestrating protests against the Alkatiri government, and subsequent concern at the Vatican that the bishops were “overly combative” in their political activities.
In December 2005 the Vatican’s East Timor country director Luis Montemayor privately told US diplomats that the bishops’ orchestration of protests against a proposed end to religious instruction in government schools was viewed with alarm by the Vatican, and that “while the bishops continued to be “involved in political battles with the Fretilin government … if they don’t go as far as to incite demonstrations similar to the ones in May, their actions are acceptable.”
Montemayor expressed the hope that the two bishops would be “more prudent” in the future and recognize that "the church should be a voice of the people, but it does not speak for all the people.”
Another Vatican-based source, East Timorese Jesuit Father Joao Piedade, went further, claiming Bishops Nascimento and da Silva were “ overly combative in relations with the Fretilin government, and consequently neglect their roles as pastors.”
Subsequent US cables report the Catholic Church’s satisfaction with the political Alkatiri’s resignation in June 2006. However Bishop Nascimento, described by the US Embassy in Dili as “among the most astute and informed social and political observers in East Timor,” quickly expressed dissatisfaction with both Horta and Gusmao, whom he viewed as politically weak and indecisive with “a tendency to compromise even when the situation calls for taking a stand.”
The WikiLeaks disclosures also provide new insight into the Horta’s attempts to negotiate with rebel East Timorese military leader, Major Alfredo Reinado, including the involvement of US diplomats as intermediaries, even as Australian troops were attempting to hunt down and kill Reinado.
In June 2007 the embassy reported that Horta had asked the Australian commander of the International Stabilization Force to suspend its pursuit of Reinado so that he could call for the rebel to turn himself in. Horta “asserted that Reinado’s supporters were deserting him, and said his strategy was to isolate Reinado from his support base while simultaneously negotiating with him for his surrender.”
However, on February 11, 2008, Horta was critically wounded in an assassination attempt by Reinado; an incident that also resulted in the rebel leader’s death.
At a March 18 discussion at Darwin Hospital the president told the US Ambassador that he was “unable to explain his attacker’s motivation,” but he was “confident that he was the victim of ‘hostile intent’ by Major Reinado.”
Horta added that he lay bleeding for "20 or 30" minutes after he was shot before “a battered ambulance with a driver but no medic arrived.”
“Horta was sharply critical of the [International Security Force] and the Ministry of Health for the poor emergency medical treatment he received (he claimed to have lost four liters of blood) and for failing to pursue his attackers,” the ambassador reported.
In the aftermath of the February 2008 assassination attempt, the US Embassy gave a somber assessment of East Timor’s longer term political and economic stability.
“The events of February 11 tragically reminded us of the frailty of the Timorese democratic experiment. The risk of collapse rose that day, as did the specter of a failed state sandwiched between our ally Australia and partner Indonesia. Fortunately, Timorese institutions held on February 11, although this is not necessarily a reliable predictor of future behavior. Promising efforts aimed at political reconciliation among ruling and opposition parties, and among key political leaders, to end their endless bickering — cited by many Timorese as a major source of instability — were stalled when their architect, Jose Ramos Horta, was shot.”
“Finally, the government faces the urgent task of improving its delivery of public services and investment, and tackling the enormous challenge of creating jobs and boosting economic growth. Timor-Leste remains an exceptionally poor country, with razor thin managerial capacity; astonishingly high unemployment/child mortality/illiteracy rates; soaring youth unemployment; explosive demographics as the population grows by 4 percent annually; breathtakingly poor infrastructure; inadequate rule of law and incomplete property rights; and, except for oil and coffee exports, no meaningful connection to the regional or global economy.”
The embassy subsequently reported in September 2009 that “relations among Timor-Leste’s senior-most political leaders (Gusmao, Ramos-Horta and Alkatiri) have soured noticeably, rekindling the same elite-level rivalries that have sparked violent conflict in the past.”
James Dunn, a long-time observer of East Timorese politics and confidant of President Horta, said yesterday that much of the US Embassy’s reporting was “quite perceptive.”
East Timor’s next national elections are scheduled to be held in mid-2012.