East Timor's murky conflict

The violence that swept East Timor in 1999 was between mostly unarmed civilians wanting independence and militias backed by former occupier Indonesia, but the young nation's recent troubles are more complex.

    Several factions are fighting for control in East Timor

    Nearly seven years later after the country's battle for independence, the unrest that has ravaged the capital of East Timor in past days stems from a mix of political rivalry, economic stagnation and prejudices festering since Indonesia's hold on the former Portuguese colony.


    Two broad factions - the east and the west - have emerged among others in East Timor's recent turmoil. These include the military and police, street gangs, government ministers and civilian victims.


    Those from the country's east, or Lorosae, which means "where the sun rises" in the local Tetum language, are said to be supporters of the independence fight.


    Among them are elder guerrillas who spent many years in mountain hideouts, mostly in the east.


    However, those from the west of the country, or Loromonu, which means "where the sun sets" in Tetum, are said to have poor credentials in the separatist movement.


    No east-west 'division'


    The pro-Indonesian militiamen who ravaged East Timor after it voted for self-rule in 1999 were recruited heavily in the west, which borders the Indonesian region of West Timor.


    "This whole east-west division is only a geographic expression"

    Jose Ramos Horta, East Timor foreign minister

    East Timor became independent in 2002 after an interim United Nations administration.


    But many people in the western part of the country opposed the Indonesian occupation as much as easterners, and held leadership positions in the separatist movement.


    Any differences had rarely been a source of conflict in the past.


    Jose Ramos Horta, the foreign minister, said: "If you look at the history of this country, there was never a war fought between regions.


    "This whole east-west division, it's only a geographic expression."


    Political rivalries


    Recent violence was caused by a rebellion of 600 dismissed members of the 1,400-member army, who had complained about discrimination by their commanders led by Taur Matan Ruak, a former guerrilla who mostly operated in the east.


    Reinado [left] is leading the rebel

    The rebels, many of whom are from the west, fled to the hills.


    The police, some of whom served under Indonesian authority, are also perceived as members of the western camp, though suspicions about their loyalty were never substantiated.


    Rivalries at top levels of East Timor's government also appear to have fuelled tension.


    Rogerio Lobato, who resigned as interior minister on Thursday, had formed special police units that some East Timorese saw as an attempt to bolster his personal power.


    Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri is also a polarising figure whose opponents from east and west seek his removal. "We hate Alkatiri", read a protester's banner on Thursday outside government offices in the capital.


    He is one of a small number of Muslims in mostly Roman Catholic East Timor, and does not have close ties to the church.


    Under the constitution, Alkatiri can only be removed in a vote of no-confidence in parliament, but politicians are unlikely to convene soon because of security concerns.


    Rallying cry


    The prime minister appears intent on staying in power, though his top cabinet allies, the interior and defence ministers, have quit to help defuse the crisis.


    President Gusmao [right] has been
    trying to unite the young nation

    President Xanana Gusmao, a former guerrilla leader and independence hero, is navigating among the factions, using his stature to try to unify the population.


    Political observers say there is no sign that outside forces, including Indonesia or elements in the Indonesian military, are trying to foment unrest in East Timor.


    However, a mob recently stole or destroyed prosecutors' evidence of 1999 massacres during the break with Indonesia, raising the possibility that those involved in the old killings might be active today.


    High unemployment is also a factor, with gangs of young men burning shops and cars seemingly at random, though many declared allegiance to "east" or "west" as a rallying cry.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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