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In E. Timor, an Optimistic Enterprise Turns to Ashes

By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 2, 2006

DILI, East Timor -- The colonial-era Palácio do Governo, with its white portico and stunning seafront vista, has long been a symbol of foreign domination here. The edifice has housed Portuguese imperialists, Indonesian occupiers and, more recently, U.N. administrators, who moved in after East Timor voted for independence in 1999. It wasn't until 2004 that senior ministers of this young country finally took full occupancy.

Now the foreigners are back. As smoke from burning homes billowed behind them, Australian soldiers in full combat gear took up positions along the second-floor veranda. They were part of a week-old international effort to restore order in a country unable to quell violence by its own rival security forces and marauding gangs.

"I feel disappointed because there has been so much foreign aid helping East Timor, and this is the result. It's all destroyed," said Leonardo Pinto, 29, a boyish-faced refugee who fled arson attacks in his neighborhood for the safety of a seaside churchyard. "I'm ashamed that our officials can't handle this problem themselves and have to invite in foreign forces."

East Timor had been the model for U.N. nation-building, hailed as an example of a modern state raised literally from ashes with the help of international cash and expertise. The island had been left devastated by Indonesian-backed militias, which went on a rampage of burning and looting after the East Timorese voted to break away.

The story of the country's return to anarchy and foreign dependency last week is one of grievances wired into the state at its creation, especially within the security forces, and then ignored by East Timorese leaders and foreign officials.

"Our mistakes have been so costly to the people and to our country," Foreign Minister José Ramos-Horta said in an interview. "If we are not mature enough, let's get the Australians to stay indefinitely."

Ramos-Horta, a Nobel peace laureate, said East Timor had been too weak to manage its own affairs when it declared independence in 2002, taking over from a transitional U.N. authority, and too anxious for U.N. advisers and peacekeepers to leave afterward. A mission that at its peak included nearly 11,000 peacekeepers and international police officers had, by this year, shrunk to fewer than 400 U.N. workers, most of them involved in political matters. "The Timorese side was over-optimistic and over-confident and thought they should let the U.N. go," Ramos-Horta said. "The U.N. itself was eager to disengage as soon as possible.".

The international effort to create this new nation of about 900,000 people was unprecedented. Since 1999, the U.N and foreign governments have rebuilt a country where about three-quarters of the houses, schools and other buildings had been destroyed in militia violence. International agencies extended basic health care, education, electricity and other services across remote districts. The United Nations took the lead in building government ministries and agencies from scratch, including the courts and national police, by providing training, equipment and advice.

But this ambitious undertaking overlooked fundamental fissures inside East Timor's newly established armed forces and police.

When the armed forces were created, the senior officers were appointed from the guerrilla movement that had battled the Indonesians for 24 years. Most of them were from the easternmost part of the country, where the insurgency had been strongest. For balance, recruits were drawn from the western portion of East Timor, but they went largely into the lower ranks. Complaints of discrimination soon surfaced.

The East Timorese administration promised the World Bank and foreign governments it would address these grievances by adopting codes governing promotion and discipline, but the pledge was never fulfilled.

"If the international community had held the Timorese to their commitments, we would not have the current problem in the military," said a Western diplomat in East Timor who asked not to be identified on the grounds that it was inappropriate for him to criticize governments on the record. "The international community never stood up to the Timorese in the last three years."

Meanwhile, the police emerged as a rival force, with senior officers drawn largely from the west of the island. The United Nations favored the police over the armed forces, contending that police were better suited to maintaining law and order, and lavished money, equipment and new uniforms on them while their military counterparts received secondhand camouflage from Portugal and China. But U.N. officials never tackled the corruption and politicking that was becoming increasingly apparent within the ranks of the police, Western and East Timorese officials said.

Still, if not for an escalating series of missteps by rival factions over the last five months, the simmering tensions might not have exploded into civil strife.

In January, about 400 westerners in the armed forces signed a petition alleging discrimination and poor treatment. When they were ignored, they took their complaints to the streets the next month, demonstrating outside the office of President Xanana Gusmao.

"We asked the military institution to solve our problem and pay attention to our complaints. They did not listen," Lt. Gastao Salsinha, leader of the dissident soldiers, said in a telephone interview from the remote district where he is now in hiding. "Instead, they gave weapons to people in order to eliminate those of us who brought the petition."

Rather than addressing the grievances, which included discontent over pay, living conditions and the deployment of troops far from their families in the west, the military in March dismissed nearly 600 western soldiers, about 40 percent of the armed forces.

"We decided they were deserters," a senior army officer said as he sat under a tree at a base outside Dili. He asked not be identified out of fear for his family's safety. "If there was discrimination, they should resolve it within the military institution and not jump and go straight to the president and foreign embassies. We felt so ashamed."

The dismissed soldiers and their supporters staged a second demonstration in late April that culminated in clashes outside the Palácio do Governo. The police fled, and the army was called in. By the end of the day, at least five from the dissident camp had been killed and rumors of a far larger number of killings swept the capital.

A day later, Maj. Alfredo Reinado, commander of the military police and a westerner, abandoned the army, heading to the hills with about 20 heavily armed soldiers. He said he broke ranks in order to maintain the professionalism of the military in the face of discrimination and politicking.

"It's like an old sickness and old virus that started years ago. This has become a tumor growing until now," he said, referring to the rivalries within the security forces. Speaking by telephone from his mountain redoubt, he criticized the former rebel fighters now heading the armed forces, saying, "The guerrilla leaders betrayed the country. They're supposed to defend the whole country, not just the easterners."

But even as he urged dialogue, Reinado himself provoked a dangerous escalation in violence a week ago when he led his dissident forces into an eastern suburb of Dili. The soldiers encountered regular army troops in the area, and the result was the fiercest gun battle yet.

A day later, army forces in central Dili attacked the national police headquarters with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, charging that the police had aligned themselves with the dissident troops. The besieged police officers appealed for help from U.N. officials, who negotiated a truce and surrender. But as U.N. police officers and advisers escorted the unarmed East Timorese police down the street from their headquarters, four soldiers opened fire, killing 10 local policemen.

The police force, terrified, disintegrated in Dili. The military, already fractured, was further discredited. Rival gangs of easterners and westerners, armed with machetes, swords and knives, took over the capital's streets. The government called for the intervention of an Australian-led force made up of 2,200 peacekeepers from four countries.

Sukehiro Hasegawa, the U.N. coordinator in East Timor, acknowledged that the unrest represented a significant setback to a U.N. undertaking that had been widely considered successful. Most gravely, he said, the violence has sundered the national unity that carried East Timor to independence.

"If the leaders of this country can come together and recognize the enormity of the problem, I think it will be temporary," Hasegawa said. "If the leaders cannot reconcile these differences, then it will become a long-term problem."

Back under the tree, the senior military officer bitterly distributed blame among the police, the dissident soldiers, the Timorese government and the United Nations.

"People say the only successful case for the U.N. is here in East Timor," he said, lowering his cigarette and flashing a sardonic smile. "You see how successful? People killing each other very successfully."

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