Timor Leste: ‘when the crisis is over…’

13. Feb 2008

Maj Nygaard-ChristensenPhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, University of Århus

In Timor Leste, a state of emergency has been declared after the 11 February 2008 shooting of President José Manuel Ramos-Horta near his home in the capital, Dili. The president has been taken to Australia for further medical treatment where his condition is currently reported as ‘serious but stable’. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao was targeted in a separate attack but escaped unharmed. Meanwhile Alfredo Reinado, a former major in the Timorese army, who is believed to have taken part in the attack on the two leaders was shot dead. In May 2006, in the midst of the violent crisis which broke out in Timor that year, Reinado deserted his post and has later been accused of weapon theft and murder. Throughout 2007, despite several attempts to catch him, Alfredo remained hiding in the mountains in the districts south of Dili. During last year as well as in recent weeks attempts at dialogue between the government and Reinado were unsuccessful.

Today, some international commentators and media predict renewed violence from Alfredo Reinado’s supporters who caused sporadic unrest throughout 2007 or by supporters of Ramos-Horta and the AMP government led by Xanana Gusmao. Optimists on the other hand, view a moment for change and suggest that the attack could work in favour of the government, bringing reconciliation and unity. Firstly, it is argued, with Alfredo gone the number one test of the government since its election in 2007 has been resolved, and secondly the attack could increase support for the president and government. Such views are perhaps less likely to catch on within Timor Leste, where trust in such ‘moments of change’ to actually deliver is low.

State of exceptionDuring my fieldwork in Timor Leste in 2007, a self proclaimed ‘state of exception’ seemed to be the order of the year. Upon my arrival in February, people were still recovering from the events of 2006, when the crisis resulted in some 150,000 fleeing their homes and settling in IDP camps in and near the capital or with families in their home districts. A year later, 100,000 IDPs remained throughout the country, and many had lost trust in the situation improving in the near future. In February and March of 2007, everyone I interviewed described the situation almost identically, as a continuation of troubles outside of their control: ‘First it was the trouble in the army, then it was Alfredo, then it was the conflict between east and west, then the gangs, now we don’t have enough rice in the country to feed ourselves. What will the next be?’.

The sense that if one month was calm, the next would surely bring unrest, continued throughout the year. As a result, many things were put on hold ‘until the crisis has passed’ or ‘until the elections are over’. However, presidential and parliamentary elections passed and on many fronts there seemed to be no major change of mood in the capital. There was, for instance, no big rush out of the many IDP camps in Dili’s neighbourhoods. In 2007, a sense of trouble waiting just around the corner had thus become a more permanent state of affairs among people in Dili. In December for instance, fears were again building up that January would bring clashes between disillusioned Fretilin supporters and the government. While it was obviously a rather different type of clash that occurred this week, it will no doubt have contributed to this lack of trust in quick solutions to the problems faced by the country. Although Alfredo is no longer around to stir up sentiments, the issues he spoke about and which gained him popularity – poverty, injustice and particularly a highly vocal criticism of the entire political elite – remain high on the agenda for some.Time for change?By many in Timor, the 2006 crisis and the continued instability is primarily perceived as resulting from conflicts between the leaders, particularly among the 1975-generation who were involved in the early resistance movement against Indonesia. In 2007, trust in political figures seemed at an all time low, and the sense of a widening gap between the big people (ema boot) and ordinary people deepened. Many thus put their hopes in the 2007 elections to bring about a change. Politicians too joined the search for a move towards better times. Some split from the formerly ruling Fretilin party, presenting themselves as Fretilin ‘Mudansa’ – Reform – whilst supporting Ramos-Horta presidential candidacy and later on Xanana’s newly created CNRT party. CNRT in turn waved election posters of skyscrapers and rockets over Dili’s dusty and (so far) rather skyscraper-free streets, suggesting better times in sight for Timor Leste’s impoverished population. Meanwhile, Alfredo sat in the mountains supporting neither new parties nor the old ruling elite. Instead, he waged his own versions of reform for ‘The People’ in the odd interview appearance on pirate DVDs circulating amongst his supporters around the country.

Political or independen?When asking Alfredo supporters in Dili last year why they held him in such high regard, a typical answer was that ‘he is independen’; meaning that he did not sympathise with any particular political party. Politics in Timor Leste, particularly party politics, have come to be perceived by many as something rather undesirable and dangerous. As one informant said when I asked him why he thought one particular party had gained much support in his home area: ‘oh but that is politics. I don’t mix my hands with that’. Another informant and friend who was active in a political party and liked to share his views with me about political life in Dili would repeatedly interrupt himself with a wave of the hand and a ‘Sorry, we are not talking politics here! We are just chatting’.

This view on politics did not mean that leaders were not wanted. Concerns over what was seen as a loss of figures of national unity was something expressed by political leaders and their electorate alike. In February 2007, a priest known for being highly vocal about local politics told me, ‘We have new national heroes now. Before, it was Ramos-Horta and Xanana; now it is Alfredo’. This is of course problematic in that many Alfredo supporters were also Horta- and later CNRT (party of Xanana Gusmao) voters, but the statement is important for the implicated differentiation between political leaders and national figures of unity. Not just opposition members, but also some of Xanana’s voters expressed hoped that he would leave the sphere of politics and act instead as a ‘figure of unity’ or a ‘father of the nation’; providing guidance to political leaders rather than actually being one. Someone ‘independen’, it was felt by some, was needed to steer the country in a better direction.

2008 has been dubbed the year of reform by Xanana Gusmao, but with this week’s attack on two of Timor Leste’s central leaders, it has had a rough and unfortunate start.