Violence in East Timor has flared up again in last few days, leading to renewed concerns about the ability of the government to exercise control, and the relations of the Australian force with the Timorese people.
Most seriously, fugitive rebel leader and cult hero Mafor Alfredo Reinado is besieged in the mountain town of Same with 150 heavily armed followers. They were surrounded by 300 Australian troops at the request of President Gusmao after Reinado raided some remote police outposts, seizing 25 high-powered weapons. As is ubiquitous in conflicts in the region, official arsenals are the main source of arms. Reinado is making big threats: he told reporters that the Australians could “stick surrender up their arse” because he would fight to the death. Also, Indonesia has sealed the border, fearing rebel incursions or a new flow of refugees. In last years violence, Reinado was captured, but incompetent, poorly-paid local guards let him and his followers walk right out of prison. It would have been so much easier if the international forces had provided prison security…
Meanwhile in Dili…
Meanwhile, Australian troops in Dili – attempting to prevent gang warfare on the streets – are facing rising anti-Australian sentiment. This follows the deaths of two youths at a refugee camp, shot by the Aussies after allegedly attacking them. Mass protests have followed. Whatever happens at the siege could plunge Timor back into civil strife, but the Australians might not be able to restore order quickly this time. Australia has 800 troops in Timor, while NZ has contributed 150.
Fragmentation beyond primary loyalties: gangs, cults, youth groups and martial arts clubs
This report on Dili’s youth gangs lists 107 separate groups, of various kinds. These include, worryingly, religious sects which await the return of martyred resistance guerrillas to lead them to victory (Colimau 2000) or use red ribbons (Sagrada Familia), or objects inserted under the skin (Five-Five), to protect them from harm or make them invisible (Seven).
I posted this report of fighting between such a sect and one of the martial arts clubs last year:
Carlito de Jesus, 29, said about 600 youths from Colimau 2000, armed with samurais, machetes, spears, small arrows and rifles, attacked the Ermera chapter of the Perguruan Setia Hati Terate martial arts club in revenge for an incident on November 2.
Epic. It seems that the situation has fragmented far beyond primary (eg tribal) loyalties, or even bureaucratic loyalties – army vs. police. Most of the young male population are affiliated with these groups, and while most seem to be peaceful and constructive, many are violent, and involved in ethnic cleansing, vigilantism or organized crime.
History – never repeats?
Also this week we were reminded of some unpleasant incidents in Timor’s past. New information came to light during an inquest, suggesting an Australian cover-up of five Anzac journalists killed during the Indonesian invasion in 1975. Apparently they were executed and burnt by Indonesian soldiers, rather than killed in crossfire as Australia and Indonesia claimed at the time. And a militia leader admitted that he had been supplied with weapons by the Indonesian army in 1999, during the proxy scorched-earth campaign that killed thousands as Indonesian forces withdrew.
NZ PM Helen Clark will be meeting with Bush in the US later this month, with Pacific security a major focus. With no sign of democracy in either Tonga or Fiji, and an anti-Australian backlash in East Timor and the Solomons, the Pacific strategy of Australia and NZ looks rather shaky. The current style of intervention is looking short-sighted and clumsy, and new ideas are desperately needed.