Trouble Returns to East Timor

Posted in Asia | 30-Jun-06 | Author: Adam Wolfe

In April 2006, Paul Wolfowitz, the World Bank president, visited East Timor and praised the "bustling markets, the rebuilt schools, the functioning government -- and above all, the peace and stability." East Timor, the world's youngest country and one of the smallest, was widely considered a success story, a model for future and current United Nations nation-building missions. Just weeks after Wolfowitz hailed the country's "remarkable story," East Timor nearly collapsed. Four days after the country celebrated its fourth anniversary, East Timor asked for the return of international peacekeepers.

The collapse seems to have taken the donor community by surprise, and exposed ethnic tensions few recognized as late as three months ago. Governmental mismanagement, corruption, political positioning for an upcoming election, and simmering ethnic tensions acted as kindling for the fiery dispute between the prime minister and the president, which culminated on June 26 when the prime minister stepped down. As Australian peacekeepers seek to restore order, East Timor now faces the challenge of rebuilding its political institutions.

The Internal Crisis

The current crisis stems from an ethnic imbalance in the country's armed forces, but its roots are political. Most of the officers are from the eastern regions, while the majority of the rank-and-file men come from the west. When a group of soldiers protested the discrimination in March, and called for the dismissal of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, the government sacked about 600 of the country's 1,400 soldiers. A group of about 500 of the dismissed soldiers sparked large-scale riots in Dili on April 28 -- including looting, arson, and the murder of at least five civilians -- then took to the hills in the country's interior, where they remain. Armed gangs took advantage of the security void, and terrorized eastern descendents in the western regions. Thousands in Dili and the surrounding region fled their homes out of fear of further violence. Small battles between security forces and their former colleagues popped up throughout May and gang violence increased.

Until a few months ago, few recognized any ethnic differences in the population, let alone within the military. There is little record of any divide between the Lorosae in the east and the Loromonu in the west. One explanation is that the Lorosae consider themselves closer to the guerrillas that fought against Indonesia, while the Loromonu are closer to the former occupying country. Resistance to Indonesian rule, however, was fairly uniform by most accounts.

When the Loromonu soldiers protested the perceived discrimination in pay and promotions, it was the first most observers heard of such an ethnic divide. While political gain was likely at the heart of the initial protest by the soldiers, street gangs used the divide for their own objectives. The street gangs emerged from the martial arts groups that formed during the Indonesian occupation; moreover, the 70 percent unemployment rate in Dili has made recruiting easy. The looting and violence launched by the street gangs in the wake of the soldiers' protests has caused an estimated 75 percent of Dili's population to flee their homes.

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