Monday, June 05, 2006

East Timor PM vows to stay on

Southeast Asia

Jun 6, 2006

East Timor PM vows to stay on
By Maryann Keady

DILI - East Timor Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri says that he is a marked man and vows to not leave his government post without a fight. As violent civil unrest in East Timor continues and an Australian-led intervention force digs in, Asia’s youngest country’s political future is very much in doubt.

There are widespread conspiracy theories surrounding the escalating violence. In an exclusive interview with Asia Times Online, Alkatiri said the recent outbreak of violence first started by a group of 500-600 disgruntled military officials represented a “coup” attempt on his government and was allegedly orchestrated by undisclosed “inside and outside” forces.

Alkatiri declined to identify who he believed was behind the unrest, saying that he would need to look at the “complete picture” to “establish the facts” before making an official announcement. “Nobody will force me to resign through violent means,” said Alkatiri in an interview from his home in Dili. “We won the election, my party won the election and we will win the next one in 2007.”

In a speech Alkatiri made at a public concert last month, he claimed that “foreigners were coming to control and divide Timor again” with “foreign advisers meeting with politicians and going to the hills” to meet rebels. He also said that local politicians and foreigners were vying to undermine his Fretlin political party, and accused the Australian media of spreading false rumors that his days as prime minister were numbered.

Such implications have always been directed towards Australia, and by association, the US. For instance, when US officials started meeting with the Timorese judiciary in 2003, Alkatiri accused Washington of interfering in the country’s internal affairs. Privately, a senior Alkatiri official referring to the US said last month, “they tried the church protests, and now they are trying to oust him via Fretlin. It won't work. They don't understand this country”.

There is no direct evidence of Australian or US involvement in the recent violence that has destabilized East Timor. But Dili-based rumors - which Alkatiri strongly denies - are rife that both countries have urged Alkatiri to step down for the sake of national unity. Australian Prime Minister John Howard has publicly commented on what he referred to as “significant governance problems” with Alkatiri’s administration.

The US, notably, has remained mute on the deteriorating security situation. This correspondent learned that a UN representative in Dili recently “unofficially” went to Alkatiri’s offices to ask him to resign, which would appear to fall outside of the UN’s remit of apolitical humanitarian assistance.

But Alkatiri denies there's been any external pressure. “There is no pressure for me to resign internationally,” Alkatiri said, adding, “Not one international government or representative has asked me to resign. People must respect our national affairs.”

Alkatiri has remained defiant against domestic calls for his resignation, saying a forced departure would be unconstitutional and undermine the country’s young democracy.

Alkatiri also hinted he could go on the offensive if the violence persists, saying that he could call upon as many as 200,000 people to take to the streets within 48 hours, but maintained during the interview that “violence was not the way to solve problems”. In other media interviews, however, he has maintained that any attempt to oust him would lead to bloodshed; while his cabinet ministers have openly declared that other countries “want to raise another flag over this nation”.

Foreign bogeys aside, what is clear is that both Australia and the US clearly favor Alkatiri’s political rivals, namely President Xanana Gusmao and Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta. During the interview, Alkatiri played down media reports of disagreement with Gusmao, even though he has moved to block the president’s bid to assume responsibility for security personnel.

There are growing indications that the two leaders’ past differences are now at risk of becoming a full-blown political schism. Alkatiri also hosed down media reports that he was against the Australia-led intervention, saying that he welcomed the troops - and that he, the president and parliament had all invited them to stabilize the country. The assertion comes on top of media reports that Alkatiri had implicated Indonesia in the unrest, a claim Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has publicly rejected.

Crying coup
While Alkatiri cries coup, the embattled prime minister is acutely aware of East Timor’s geo-strategic significance. Australia’s recent Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) and the deployment of peacekeeping troops in East Timor reflect Canberra’s carefully designed strategy to intervene in Pacific states only after they have descended into chaos.

In East Timor’s case, a prophetic piece of writing emerged in 2002 from Canberra’s Australian Strategic Policy Institute (a government-subsidized think tank). Entitled “New Neighbor, New Challenges”, the paper set out the challenges for the Australia-East Timor relationship and put forward an endless number of scenarios of unrest in East Timor, which perhaps uncannily, all seem to have taken place since the report was published. Most interesting was its preoccupation with Australia ensuring security for East Timor - and Timor’s importance for Australia’s security.

The strategic subtext, of course, is that both Australia and the US have prioritized counterbalancing China’s growing economic and military might in the politically volatile Pacific region. The Ombei Wetar Straits, just of East Timor’s coast, is a particularly strategic waterway for the US navy, a deep water trough that connects the Indian and Pacific Oceans and is deep enough for submarines to navigate.

As China moves to enhance its maritime power, including US-alleged aspirations for the development of a “green water” navy, the US has countered by ensuring that potential maritime chokepoints don’t fall under China’s political sway. Washington has recently worked to forge together joint patrols of the Malacca Straits with regional allies, allegedly to guard against possible terrorist attacks, but clearly aimed at controlling the sea lanes where most of China’s fuel from the Middle East is transported.

From Australia’s perspective, China is becoming a disruptive force in a region Canberra has frequently described as an “arc of instability”. The island nation of Kiribati’s recent decision to change its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China was viewed as a sign of Beijing’s growing influence in the Pacific. The recent riots against the ethnic Chinese in the Solomon Islands gave rise to allegations China was causing instability in the region through covert migration policies.

Both East Timor and Papua New Guinea are closely watched for signs that they might be drawing closer to Beijing and jeopardizing Canberra’s strategic interests. Both Canberra and Washington were reportedly alarmed to learn that Alkatiri had entered talks with China to possibly help develop natural gas pipelines off East Timor’s coast.

The Greater Sunrise development, led by Australia’s Woodside Petroleum, has notably stalled. Neither Australia nor East Timor has ratified the Certain Maritime Agreements in the Timor Sea agreement they negotiated after protracted disputes over maritime boundaries and Timor’s request that a gas pipeline go to Timor, not Darwin, to liquefy the Sunrise gas. Alkatiri has argued that East Timor desperately needs the jobs, but although the treaty has been signed, it has not been ratified by either parliament.

Alkatiri’s communist past as a self-professed Marxist while in exile in Mozambique is often dredged up among US and Australian diplomats as a reason he should not be trusted to assist their efforts to counterbalance China’s influence in the region. Yet Alkatiri is a far more consummate politician than the Australian media caricatures often portray.

He is acutely aware that Australia’s defense is predicated on maintaining a strong presence in the Pacific, including East Timor, which is clearly visible to China. Australia’s recent forward deployment into East Timor reaffirms that strategic notion. Alkatiri himself has said that Timor is a small country between “two major players” and that therefore its own strategic options are limited. As the social unrest in East Timor grinds on, so too it appears are his personal options.

Maryann Keady is a freelance radio journalist and reporter who has covered Timor and recently returned from Dili. She is currently at Columbia University’s Weatherhead Institute looking at US Foreign Policy and China. Her first book of interviews called China Conversations will be out in 2007.

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