Australian troops heading to East Timor to restore law and order face a number of warring factions, writes Mark Dodd
25 May 2006
ON Tuesday he was in the hills above East Timor's capital Dili putting his Australian military training to good use, trying to kill his former army comrades. Alfredo Alves Reinado, the highest ranking East Timorese army officer to join 595 other military rebels, has shown he is prepared to back his threats with action.
At least two soldiers, one rebel and one loyalist, have died in gun battles on the capital's western outskirts as violence in East Timor once again spirals out of control.
Reinado is emerging as a central player in the crisis that was triggered earlier this year with a protest by 595 soldiers over poor pay and conditions and ethnic discrimination over promotion.
The ethnic fault line runs deep in East Timorese society but in the case of the army, known by its Portugese acronym F-FDTL, it pits eastern-born Timorese (Lorosae) against their western kinsfolk, the Loromonu. On April 27-28 it exploded into deadly violence on the streets of Dili.
The uprising caused a change of career path for Reinado, whose CV makes interesting reading.
Captured by Indonesian troops in 1975, he served as a porter in the Indonesian army in Sulawesi and Kalimantan before escaping to Australia. He found work in Western Australia's shipyards for nine years before returning to his homeland after the historic 1999 referendum for independence.
His nautical skills were quickly put to use by the commanders of the country's new F-FDTL defence force and he was appointed commander of East Timor's two patrol boat navy. But his career soured quickly, perhaps due to what one of his former trainers describes as his "direct manner", typical of the straight-talking style of Australian waterside workers. East Timor's armed forces commander, Brigadier-General Taur Matan Ruak, ordered he be transferred to army headquarters in Dili. It was a slight he would not forget.
He stayed in the defence force and was appointed commander of a new 33-strong military police platoon after a training stint at the Australian Defence Force college in Canberra late last year.
He also wangled an operational cruise on one of the RAN's patrol boats, probably with a view to taking charge again one day at the Hera naval station outside Dili.
But the violence in April changed his career plans. On May 4 he gathered together 20 loyal MPs and four members of East Timor's elite paramilitary riot police, loaded weapons and ammunition on to two lorries and took to the hills of Aileu in sympathy with his Loromonu clan. At first the East Timor Government played down the significance of the desertion. Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta said after meeting Reinado that the officer had simply returned to his home town to protect civilians living there. But what Ramos Horta did not reveal was Reinado's past grievances with his eastern-born army superiors and his open sympathy for the plight of the other army rebels garrisoned nearby in the coffee-growing hill town of Ermera; rebels such as Lieutenant Gasto Salsinha, who leads one-third of the army deserters.
As with generations before him, Salsinha and his rebel band are in hiding in East Timor's remote mountain fastness. Ramos Horta says negotiations have started with the rebel soldiers to bring about a peaceful resolution to the protest responsible for the worst violence seen in the impoverished country since the militia carnage in 1999.
East Timorese defence sources say that while bias by eastern-born army commanders against western recruits exists in the country's small army, unheeded complaints of poor pay and conditions are equally to blame for the army protest and subsequent riots on April 28-29.
The violence has left at least six dead and dozens injured. Fighting erupted again in the streets yesterday, resulting in official request for Australian help from the East Timorese Government to restore law and order.
Bigger questions are also being asked about links between Salsinha and Interior Minister Rogerio Lobato over the crisis that has gutted the F-FDTL and threatens its future. In addition to a shared interest in sandalwood futures, reliable East Timorese sources claim Lobato is a pal of Salsinha.
East Timor's army is the only organ of government that is truly independent. It lies outside the control of the ruling Fretilin Party and the politically ambitious Interior Minister. It is an open secret that there are many in power in Dili who would like the army brought under political control and that is the ultimate driving force of this conflict.
The origins of the April 28 riots can be traced back to January 11. That was the date President Xanana Gusmao received a petition from a group of disgruntled 1st Battalion soldiers complaining of poor pay and conditions and discrimination by eastern-born officers against western-born recruits.
Matters worsened on February 7 when 400 soldiers from the 1st and 2nd battalions left their barracks and arrived at Gusmao's Palacio Das Cinzas residence to press their complaints. Gusmao, commander-in-chief of East Timor's security forces, requested the attendance of Defence Minister Roque Rodrigues and Army Commander Brigadier-General Taur Matan Ruak. Both men refused and Ruak's chief-of-staff, Colonel Lere Annan Timor, was sent along instead.
At the meeting Gusmao made several vague promises that the soldiers' grievances would be investigated and ordered them back to barracks. But under the leadership of 32-year-old Salsinha they refused to return. Citing fear of recrimination, they maintained their rage in Dili.
By the end of February the 400 were joined by another 200 battalion malcontents and together they became known as the 591 Group. Tensions continued to rise and in mid-March Ruak discharged all 591 rebel soldiers for failing to return to duty.
In response, late last month Salsinha announced five days of protests in Dili to draw attention to military injustice. The scene was set for a showdown, but the violence of April 28 was almost certainly triggered by the actions of other anti-government groups taking advantage of the ensuing chaos.
Complaints of ethnic prejudice and poor service conditions within the F-FDTL are not without foundation.
Although eastern commanders (all Gusmao loyalists) dominate at battalion and headquarters level, their seniority is not exclusive. Lieutenant-Colonel Filomeno Paixo, head of army logistics; presidential military adviser Lieutenant-Colonel Pedro Gomes; and head of army training Lieutenant-Colonel Sabika are all from the west.
But it is Defence Minister Rodrigues who has much to answer for when it comes to apportioning blame for the crisis. Western diplomats and security analysts blame him for failing to see a crucial draft defence policy tabled before parliament.
"The minister is absolutely incompetent," says one unnamed defence analyst with long-time experience in East Timor.
Plans to establish a military base in the country's west, in Bobonaro district, have stalled. For Loromonu soldiers based in Baucau and Los Palos in the east, it means much of their meagre $120 monthly salary is spent travelling during leave periods to return to their families in the west. In contrast, soldiers based in the army's Dili headquarters get a $7 per day living allowance, which remains a source of great resentment.
Although Salsinha, born in Ermera, represents the interests of the Loromonu rebels, the young officer has a shady past. East Timor defence sources say he was arrested last year for sandalwood smuggling and removed from a captain's training course.
"He has a dark cloud hanging over his head," one Western defence analyst told The Australian.
He also keeps interesting company. Other reliable East Timorese security sources say Salsinha is a friend of Lobato, who is also linked to a mysterious sandalwood seizure in 2002 that has never been satisfactorily explained. The Lobato name is synonymous with East Timor's long and bloody independence struggle. His resistance leader brother Nicolau was killed in a gun battle with pursuing Indonesian special forces troops in 1978. Nicolau's wife was machine-gunned off Dili wharf following her capture in the first days of the Indonesian invasion in 1975.
One of five Central Committee members sent abroad in 1975 (along with Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, Ramos Horta and Rodrigues), Lobato was instructed to seek support for East Timor's independence struggle. In 1978 he was briefly tutored by the Khmer Rouge before moving to Angola, where he was arrested and jailed in 1983 for abusing diplomatic privileges, diamond smuggling and procuring prostitutes.
After involvement with an Indonesian-sponsored group of "conciliators" in the early 1990s, Lobato, a westerner, returned to East Timor in November 2000 with no significant power base. But not for long.
Excluded from the UN transitional government, he was quickly attracted to the cause of the Falintil veterans, the armed wing of the pro-independence movement that waged a guerilla war against Indonesian occupiers, and helped them organise aggressive public protests that would challenge the legitimacy of the newly formed F-FDTL.
The provocation and threats against the Government paid off and in 2002 Lobato was appointed Minister of Internal Administration. He wasted no time in building up the East Timor National Police Force to rival the F-FDTL.
Lobato remains the man to watch, the one who controls the various factions and effectively controls a 30,000-strong police force with three paramilitary arms.
The grievances of the army, personal ambitions aside, are genuine and procrastinating by the Government has fuelled discontent. This vacuum of decision-making has allowed other groups with a grudge to use the soldiers' dispute to put pressure on the Government.
A meeting of the Fretilin conference last week, when Alkatiri was reaffirmed as leader, was not the circuit-breaker outsiders had hoped for. Following an official request yesterday for help, up to 1300 members of the Australian defence taskforce, including special forces troops, and up to 50 Australian police were preparing last night to go to East Timor to stabilise the country.
Mark Dodd is The Australian's foreign affairs and defence writer.