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Ex-Falintil guerillas call for Veterans Affairs department

Radio Australia - July 23, 2004

A riot in the East Timorese capital Dili this week has turned the spotlight on simmering political tensions in the country. Cornelio Gama, a dissident former commander of Falintil who goes by his jungle codename L-7 led about a hundred supporters in a demonstration against the government. The government denies that it's facing a serious challenge. But it seems that one of the biggest problems confronting the world's newest nation remains how to deal with its past.

Presenter/Interviewer: Marion MacGregor

Speakers: Dr Mari Alkatiri, Prime Minister of East Timor; Christiano da Costa, supporter of 'L7'; Jim Fox, Professor and director of the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University

MacGregor: About a hundred former Falintil guerillas and their supporters occupied the seafront building housing the Prime Minister's office on Monday afternoon. After more than fifteen hours and an effort to negotiate that went nowhere, the government ordered the police to get rid of them. Eyewitnesses say about 26 people were arrested and four slightly injured.

L7 and his followers claim they've been abandoned by the government. Their bitterness dates back to 2001, when many former Falintil guerillas, who had helped wage a 24-year armed struggle against Indonesian rule, weren't picked for the new national defence force. Professor Jim Fox from the Australian National University helped write a major report recommending that the Timorese army should include a reserve force to accommodate those Falintil veterans who were not considered qualified to serve in the active corps.

Fox: It would be a mechanism for keeping these men under relative command, keeping them involved at a rather limited place wherever they were in East Timor, but would not cost a great deal. In other words they might meet for, in a year they'd meet for two weeks, three weeks training, they would still have some kind of a uniform, but they would still be under command. That was never done, for reasons I fail to understand, during the UN time.

MacGregor: Anger has been simmering ever since. Two years ago, it boiled over in demonstrations that saw hundreds of men take to the streets armed with knives and machetes. Professor Fox says while L7's stronghold is in the east, he could still marshall support across the country.

Fox: The grievances among all of the ex Falintil, the previous militia and the clandestine extends over the whole island, and he can galvanise those sentiments of neglect, which are scattered quite widely.

MacGregor: One of L7's supporters is Christiano da Costa, a leader of the controversial Popular Council for the Defence of the Democratic Republic of East Timor.

Da Costa: I think the protest is the starting point. It is the beginning of the process, and I don't think it's going to finish. The government must be wise enough to look at the case of the veterans and the case of L7. We need a veterans policy, like down in Australia you have a department of veterans that looks after the veterans that fought in Vietnam in Korean war, in East Timor in PNG in Iraq.. so why not East Timor after a long period of resistance, a long period of sacrifice can not have a department to look after the veterans issue?

MacGregor: After the defence force was formed, the World Bank, the US and Japan donated US$2.5 million to help former guerillas like L7 return to civilian life. But as few records were kept of the resistance network, allocating that money was not going to easy. In any case, Christiano da Costa says money is not the problem.

Da Costa: The problem here is the management of the funds, that is not properly managed. The funds have been used, or misused so far.

MacGregor: That's an accusation East Timor's Prime Minister, Dr Mari Alkatiri, strongly rejects. He also denies that his government is facing serious opposition from the former veterans.

Alkatiri: As far as I know, the only ex Falintil that was in the demonstration was L7. See if he is so strong, with a lot of supporters, why only he succeed to bring not more than 40 to 50 people? There is no level of dissatisfaction, this is why, you are always talking to the people that in the general election were defeated and they are looking to get the power of course they are dissatisfied because they are the minor parties, that didn't succeed in the election. They have to wait for the next election.

MacGregor: Dr Alkatiri says if some former Falintil fighters have grievances with the government, that's the fault of the United Nations.

Alkatiri: We inherit a situation, we are trying to resolve it. We are being blamed by others that we inherited a lot of situations from the UNTAET time.

MacGregor: What about creating a department of veterans affairs now?

Alkatiri: That's not the issue for now, we don't need a department just to deal with the veteran issues. What we need is to help these people to be reintegrated into society as free citizens, and not to discriminate them with their own department.

MacGregor : Do you think people are expecting too much from your government?

Alkatiri: They have the right to expect what they like. But I only can do what I can do. And of course people, some, their expectation is so high, very poor people, their expectation is so high..it's legitimate. We need to get them involved within the whole process, to understand the process, to participate. People need to understand.