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Ex-freedom fighters hit the streets for jobs

Interpress Service - July 23, 2004

Mark Dodd, Darwin – Anti-government demonstrations this week in East Timor's capital involving former guerrilla fighters indicate a growing frustration among veterans who feel robbed of their independence dividend in a fledgling nation with a profoundly weak economy and high unemployment.

According to East Timor's Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta, this poses a serious internal security problem for his new country.

Ramos-Horta told IPS, during a brief visit to Australia's northern port city, that the issues of East Timorese veterans are "complex and cannot be solved by violent confrontation but only through peaceful means."

On Tuesday, crack East Timorese riot police, in East Timor's capital Dili, fired tear gas to disperse a demonstration by hundreds of former resistance veterans and their supporters demanding more government support and the removal of Timorese police officers who formerly served in the Indonesian security forces.

They also sought the dismissal of the Minister for the Interior Rogerio Lobato.

The protest was led by former a Falintil guerrilla commander, Cornelio Gama better known by his old jungle code name, L-7 (Elle Sette).

The demonstration outside the central government administration building broke up after riot police fired tear gas. Local media reported three injuries.

Small groups of protestors fled towards the central market. Police detained about 31 protestors including an alleged ringleader, Commander Labarik.

Gama managed to evade capture and was thought to be hiding in the Dili's Becora suburb, where he has a huge following.

Ex-Falintil members have protested in the past because they feel they have not been given enough say in the running of the country they fought to liberate from Indonesia – with many left out of social programmes and overlooked in recruitment for the new nation's defence force.

For 25 years, East Timor was occupied by Indonesia and Falintil guerrillas during that period waged a guerrilla war against the Indonesian armed forces.

In late August 1999, the Timorese in a United Nations- sponsored referendum opted for independence.

When the ballot results were announced in September 1999, Indonesian military-sponsored militias went on an orgy of terror. The UN estimates more than 1,000 East Timorese were killed in the rampage.

East Timor gained independence in May 2002 after a two-year interim administration led by the United Nations.

But over two years later, there's still disappointment on the streets of Dili. East Timor is long past the independence euphoria as the new Timorese government grapples with bread and butter issues in the fledgling nation.

Unemployment is estimated at between 60 to 80 percent and more than half of East Timor's 800,000 people live on less than 55 US cents a day, according to the United Nations Development Programme.

Ramos-Horta said the plight of former veterans would ease if his country, South-east Asia's poorest, had more money to spend on social benefits.

In late 2000, the Falintil Reinsertion Assistance Programme was funded by the United States Agency for International Development or USAID, to help freedom fighters who were being demobilised.

The programme consisted of four phases: registration; discharge from cantonment; initial reinsertion grant disbursement; and reintegration, providing tools, training and assisted sub-grants to help beneficiaries establish sustainable income-generating activities.

But the identification of beneficiaries proved difficult, as no documentation existed on Falintil membership during its 25 years of struggle.

The International Organisation for Migration implemented the programme throughout 2001, which ended on Dec. 31 of that year. But donors were criticised for not prolonging the grant part of the programme for at least another year.

In the programme ex-Falintil fighters were selected for the East Timor Defense Force (ETDF), but the United Nations and the Falintil High Command agreed the selection process would remain an internal matter within the ex-guerrillas'leadership.

"Claims that the Falintil register was not complete and dissatisfaction with the recruitment criteria, as well as historically-based internal tensions within Falintil, have been the driving force behind the growth of 'ex-Falintil' veteran groups," said a recent report from the International Policy Institute, based in London University's King's College.

According to Edward Rees, a former political officer with the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor, the decision regarding who would enter ETDF was based on internal Falintil divisions.

"Falintil commanders and their followers admitted to the ETDF were loyalists of President Xanana Gusmao, who was the Falintil commander-in-chief. Of those who were excluded from the ETDF, a sizable minority had an acrimonious relationship with Gusmao," Rees told IPS.

Rees pointed out that a dangerous equation is emerging in East Timor, which probably explains Tuesday's incident.

"Old divisions in the anti-Indonesian resistance movement are being institutionalised in the new East Timorese state with one political grouping – President Gusmao's allies – finding a home in the defense force and dissidents under the patronage of the Minister for the Interior finding a home in the police service, and some elements of local government," he said.

Warned Rees: "The institutionalisation of political differences in the defence force and police service will almost certainly cause East Timor to take a regional approach to democracy and possibly follow the worst example - that of its old oppressor Indonesia."

Meanwhile, local reports indicate that the East Timorese government and a group of detained former Falintil fighters agreed Thursday to talks mediated by President Gusmao to work together to resolve disputes over veterans' demands for official recognition and aid.

Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri also stepped in to help placate matters with the ex-Falintil fighters. He assured them that the legislative process to recognise their contribution to the country's independence from Indonesian occupation was under way.