Shravanti Reddy – What began as a peaceful student protest on December 4 in the East Timor capital city of Dili ended in the largest violent conflict the nation has seen since independence.
On that day, two people were shot and killed and 26 people were injured as a state of emergency was declared and the city was placed on curfew. Peace returned the following morning, with the help of the UN Peacekeeping Force (PKF) and the UN Police (UNPOL).
However, local civil society organizations believe that while the East Timor Police Service (ETPS) was most likely responsible for the two deaths, the UN is ultimately accountable for not acting quickly enough to stop the violence.
Economic and social problems within the country are also largely considered to have played a role and many also believe that the violence escalated due to the political manipulation of the crowd by opponents of the current government under President Xanana Gusmao.
The government has set up two independent inquiries into the matter and local organizations have urged all criminal acts to be prosecuted.The event reminded many of the violence carried out by anti-independence militias in 1999 when close to 1,000 people were killed following a referendum concerning independence from Indonesia. East Timor was under Indonesian rule for twenty-five years.
The level of violence in 1999 sparked the intervention of the international community that ultimately led to a two-year UN transitional administration and independence for East Timor in May. While a UN evacuation was not ordered, many foreign workers hurried to the airport fearing that this was only the beginning of further violence. Only last month a mob had also attacked Baucau police headquarters
On December 3, a group of students and teachers from a local high school gathered in front of the National Parliament building because of their concern for fellow student, Daniel Soares, whom they believed was arbitrarily arrested by the ETPS.
Soares was arrested on November 24 on suspicion of murdering a member of a rival martial arts group who was stabbed to death in Bebonuk.
The protest stemmed from an arrest of a student for murder. According to an agreement made with Parliament, the group agreed to leave and return the following morning to continue their protest. However, they were soon joined by others and violence shortly ensued as people were reportedly incited to throw stones at the Parliament building by some in the crowd. Several windows were broken and one Member of Parliament was injured. As the crowd rapidly grew to some 500 people, the protest moved on to ETPS headquarters where the violence escalated after the ETPS shot and killed two students.
The presence of Gusmao, a respected individual within East Timorese society, did nothing to stem the violence. While he was successful in inviting a small group of students and teachers back to the Parliament building to talk, the majority of the crowd continued on its rampage, looting and attacking foreign-owned stores and burning vehicles and houses in different parts of the city including the Muslim area in and around the Kampung Alor mosque.
The homes of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri and some of his relatives were also burned down before the crowd dispersed. PKF, UNPOL, and ETPS were able to secure the city the following morning. In addition to the dead and injured, 77 people were arrested on suspicion of looting and rioting. All but ten were released by Friday. No trial date has been set for those still detained and Soares has been remanded to custody in Becora Prison for an additional 30 days.
Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta believed that the violence was a product of political manipulation. Horta called the incident "an agenda of pure political manipulation" and UN Chief Kamalesh Sharma also stated that the riots may have been a "a planned attack against selected targets."
Local organizations concurred, reporting that protesters were manipulated by dissident political leaders. Aiming to destabilize the new government, they led the mob to certain targets, the main ones involved evidence of the unequal wealth between foreigners and locals, the Prime Minister, and the Muslim minority.
Many, including Gusmao, also believe that poverty played a major role in sparking violence last week. Local civil society organizations added that depressed social and economic conditions made the mob an easy target for manipulation by the political dissidents.
With a population of close to 800,000 people, the average annual income for last year was a mere US$857. Many people do not even have enough money to send their children to school. In addition, an attempt to increase University fees has been an ongoing sore spot for students.
In fact, the Australian newspaper, Financial Review, has claimed that East Timor's main problems are "its large, under-employed, poorly educated, youthful population" and the overall "unrealistic expectations of the economic benefits that independence would bring."
With international donors pledging close to US$520 million in reconstruction aid back in 1999 and the presence of vast old and gas reserves located in the Timor Sea, drastic changes were expected.
An agreement with Australia last year will provide the government with 90 percent of future oil revenues that should provide the country with billions of dollars over the next 20 years.
However, the pace of economic development remains slow and most East Timorese have yet to reap the benefits of international aid or oil and gas revenues. Instead, many continue to rely on subsistence farming and fishing for survival. Unemployment is high and there are few social services.
The juxtaposition of such poverty with an emerging elite, coupled with the influx of UN workers and military personnel who sometimes receive up to US$100 per day, helped to fuel frustration. The decision to make Portugese, the language of the erstwhile colonist, the new official language is another cause of disenfranchisement.
Most East Timorese do not speak Portugese, but rather Bahasa Indonesian or Tetum, an indigenous language. This is particularly true for the younger generation who grew up under Indonesian rule.
The result is that almost 90 percent of the population is blocked from obtaining lucrative government jobs. They are also at a disadvantage when participating in government decision-making and seeking justice in the courts. Harsh criticism was leveled against the PKF and the UNPOL for their slow response to the violence last week.
In a joint statement, 17 East Timorese civil society organizations condemned the violence but claimed that the UN and the international community were ultimately accountable, despite the fact that the ETPS clearly acted with unnecessary force.
Upon independence, the UN Security Council replaced the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) with a new peacekeeping mission, the UN Mission in Support of East Timor (UNMISET). UNPKF and UNPOL, which are under UNMISET, have a mandate to maintain law and order within the country and the ETPS operates under the guidance and supervision of UNPOL.
As the attacks and looting were occurring, there was no sign of the PKF, UNPOL, or ETPS. Despite wide access to vehicles, motorcycles and communications equipment, they arrived at each site only after the mob, that was traveling by foot, had moved on.
Foreign Minister Ramos Horta attributed the slow response to the reluctance to deploy peacekeepers "without a mandate or training to confront civil disturbances."
Horta explained that the riots were dispelled only after the Portugese faction of the UN peacekeeping troops acted outside of the UN chain of command, that had hesitated to act quickly.
In addition, local groups have criticized the PKF and UNPOL for making the security of UN and government facilities a priority over ending the violence. People reported seeing PKF forces passing areas of violence, without stopping, on their way to guard UN and government facilities.
In any case, the inability of the ETPS to handle the protests underscores the need for further training, particularly in dealing with civil protests, and a review of the timeline for withdrawal of PKF and UNPOL. The Portugese have already pledged to provide some such training.
Despite fears that it would be postponed, the two-day Dili Donors' Conference was held as scheduled, ending on December 10. With UN Peacekeepers providing security for the 200 delegates, the real need to increase aid for police training and programs that address the social and economic problems within East Timor could not have escaped them.
[Shravanti Reddy writes for the Digital Freedom Network www.dfn.org where this article first appeared.]