Thu, Jun 01, 2006 - Page 9 News List

East Timor has to deal with its own problems

The tendency to call on Australia and other powers when the going gets tough is doing the fledgling state no good at all, argue international observers


East Timorese too young to recall the dreadful violence that brought foreign troops rushing to the half-island in 1999 have been witnesses to a chilling flashback.

Armed gangs loot and burn, people flee their homes and take to the hills, ancient animosities between ethnic groups are settled in back alleys with swords and clubs, mobs ransack the warehouses of aid agencies and fight over the spoils.

This time Indonesia can't be blamed for a descent into anarchy that has cost dozens of lives, left thousands homeless and again trashed Dili, the picturesque seaside capital. The neighbors, who invaded in 1975 and ruled with an iron fist for 24 years, left seven years ago.

The East Timorese have had their own elected government since 2001 and have been formally independent since 2002. The blame for recent disgraceful scenes lie with the East Timorese themselves.

This round of violence began earlier this month after 600 soldiers dismissed from the army by Prime Minister Alkatiri's government made common cause with others unhappy with his leadership.

Demonstrations degenerated into riots that pitted soldiers against police, those from the east of the country against those from the west, and supporters of Alkatiri against those seeking his removal. Discipline within the security apparatus broke down. With law and order gone, mob rule took over.

Alkatiri, under pressure from President Xanana Gusmao, called in Australian, Malaysian, New Zealand and Portuguese troops to separate the warring parties and restore order.

"The government has failed miserably," Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta said. "We have failed to embrace people who disagree with the government, we have failed in addressing the problems in the military even though we knew about them."

East Timor's political problems are tricky. The dominant party is Fretilin, which holds 55 of the 88 seats in parliament. Earlier this month, and with the active support of Ramos Horta, Alkatiri was re-elected leader in advance of a general election in May next year.

The popular Ramos Horta now wants the unpopular Alkatiri to resign. So does the Nelson Mandela-like war hero Gusmao. But Alkatiri refuses and is pushing for a face-saving Cabinet reshuffle.

Australia, which led the international force that curbed Indonesia's goodbye-gift pillage in 1999, is desperate to stay out of local politics.

"We'll be encouraging them to run their own show again," Australian Prime Minister John Howard said. "We'll be giving them help, we'll be giving them advice, but in the end, if it is to be an independent country, East Timor has got to run itself."

Howard is keenly aware that the million people that inhabit the region's poorest country have come to expect Australians to save them from themselves. Interventions are expensive, counter-productive and, most worryingly, are an irritant to Australia's all-important relations with Indonesia.

The Australian National University's Andrew MacIntyre is adamant that Australia should leave nation-building to the East Timorese and not allow the nascent country to become a client state.

"We cannot be the long-term providers of law and order," MacIntyre said. "We cannot broker durable political solutions to internal leadership struggles. We cannot drop in new systems of government. And we cannot drive job creation."

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