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.

Major Alfredo Reinado

Siege

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.

Elsewhere

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.

6 Responses to “Timor-Leste heats up: Australian SAS in armed siege”

Thanks for the in-depth look. With East Timor, Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan all unable to govern themselves without Western military forces, it appears that the international community’s nation-building track record is rather poor.

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This is a good post Phil. I was in East Timor in 1992, and the situation seems so different now to what it was then – not only the fact that the Indonesians are long gone, but also that the lid on simmering tensions has been lifted.

The question that your post raises for me is whether the strife you describe is abnormal or part and parcel of a Melanesian/Malay society? Tribal fighting has long been a feature of such societies, before, during and after colonization (witness the PNG highlands). In an anarchic society inter-clan violence is often a ritualized way of settling differences and obtaining justice for wrongs done – in other words, it has a stabilizing effect.

The danger is when this combines with other factors: access to high powered weaponry, organized crime, urbanization, high youth unemployment and unrealized expectations, and rifts within the political system and the security forces.

It will be interesting to see if things in Timor Leste deteriorate further, or if a pattern of sudden flare-ups settling back to periods of calm ensues. My bet is the latter.

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THanks for your comments. Peter, I would be very interested to read more about your experiences in East Timor.

You raise an interesting point about whether this is normal tribal violence. It seems to me that the tribes have been weakened considerably by the Indonesian occupation, and the youth groups, gangs etc hold a lot of the power and loyalty that the tribes once controlled, especially among men of combat age. High-powered weaponry does seem to destroy the limited, ritualized nature of tribal conflict. Another example (with PNG) is the sudden change in the balance of power among Maori iwi in the 1820-30s, as some tribes obtained muskets. The resulted wars were unlimited and unrestrained.

It’s also interesting that tribal war, despite being ritualized, can be incredibly deadly. Many studies on Venezuelan and New Guinean tribes have found an up to 30% KIA rate for adult tribesmen. The comparable rate for 20th century Westerners, even with modern technology and two world wars, is more like 1%. And yet warfare has supposedly changed from ritualized combat to “total war”.

I’d take the same bet. But while there will be periods of relative calm, I doubt the central government will hold much real power.

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East Timor when independence was granted five years ago,the people of East Timor had,for the first time in hundredds of years,the change to lead a normal life,free of oppression,fear and intimidation.Sadly this has not eventuated.In fact today’s situation in East Timor can only be described as shameful and disgaceful.Humanitarian crisis is happening under the of the currend Marxist Fretelin Goverment,the UN,and the Australia Goverment.Thousands of hungry people are displaced,living in refugee camps all over my country,children are dying everyday from malnutrition and disease,and the million of dollars in Aid that poured in over the past fiv years has not even begun trickling down to the people.The Government corruption began five years ago,when we earned our Independence,and has now spread like a rampant cancer throughout the system.This has to stop.

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I am redraw my name as Presidential candidate Timor Leste for election 9 of April 2007,in regard to the weapons charges against former Prime Minister,Mari Alkatiri,being dropped,this is a classic example of who really is in charge in East Timor.Another grave concern of mine is the amount of weapons currently being brought into East Timor,described as highly sophisticated weapons.I believe that these weapons have already been distributed throughout the country.Why the Government need these weapons,unless they are planning to use them.I am deeply concerned for the safety of my people and that of the peacekeeping force from Australia and New Zealand,who are currently trying to maintain security,especially in Dili,they are doing excellent job,but now instead of facing an enemy armed with rocks,spears,knives and pipe guns at the worst,they now are very likely to confront heavily armed Goverment santioned gangs who are primarily responsible for most of the trouble since Independence.Enough blood has already been spilt in East Timor,but now I fear futher bloodshed as the election draw near.Election is not the solution in East Timor right now,the only way to resolve the problem UN have to step in restore Unity Government according with resolution UN 1272/2001.By doing this,can avoid the bloodshed.

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kinda sad, Australia never wanted to become involved with the whole independance movement in Timor Leste (ET) but for our sins we became involved and now find ourselves responsible for a state that wants to kick the spokes out of its own wheels then blame everyone else.

If people in Timor could get along Australia wouldnt be there the UN wouldnt be there.

We arnt in Timor to repress or bully, we are there to hopefully prevent more civilian deaths.

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