In East Timor, a rebel leader with a cause
By Gene Ward
Maj. Alfredo Reinado sat on the bamboo couch in our traditional East Timorese gazebo and didn't say much through the Thanksgiving festivities we had for our 46 Peace Corps volunteers and U.S. Embassy staff in East Timor.
Little did we suspect that five months later, he would become the leader of a rebellion that has brought the country to a standstill and caused most all of us to be sent home.
After all, East Timor had been the United Nations poster child, and diplomats could not stop heaping praise on the newest country in the world. East Timor also happens to be the poorest country in Asia, with only 1 million people, a third of whom are malnourished and have incomes of less than $25 per month.
It survived 450 years of Portuguese colonization and 25 years of harsh Indonesian military occupation and guerrilla warfare, but couldn't withstand 595 army troops filing a grievance against their government leaders. The country is a bit bigger than Singapore and is about a 1 1/2-hour flight north of Darwin, Australia, and east of Bali, and is connected by regular flights from both.
Reinado was simply known as "Alfredo" to us and was the spouse of one of our Peace Corps employees who had worked with us the last two years in the capital city, Dili. Alfredo was Western-educated and loved democracy, but a friend says he was never too enamored being a soldier. It simply was the best job he could find after returning to East Timor from abroad.
He had been a good mechanic, but could make a better living earning about $150 per month in the military. Soon, Alfredo had worked his way through the ranks with his intelligence and articulateness and had become commander of the military police.
He is a man driven by principle and fairness and remains totally loyal to President Xanana Gusmao, who has no real power under the East Timor constitution. Some of the grievances of Alfredo Reinado are well known but not well covered by the media.
I believe there are a few things driving this man and the rebellion that the media haven't covered and the history of East Timor has not revealed.
To date, the media have reported that the drivers of the conflict are primarily the rift in the army and the 595 soldiers who petitioned the government with legitimate grievances and were sacked, and how this set off a series of battles between affiliated military and youth gangs from eastern and western parts of the country.
But there is much more to it than that.
What's missing is the background, detailing how the East Timorese are getting back at themselves rather than the Indonesians who had burned their country to the ground in 1999 when they exited after losing in a U.N.-sponsored plebiscite. The present rift in the army simply exposed the East-West divisions of 1999, when the Easterners had championed themselves as the front line against the Indonesians while they felt the Westerns were more Indonesian sympathizers.
The looting gangs in the street were simply opportunists and part of the 50 to 75 percent in Dili who are unemployed.
But some would say the biggest driver of rebel leader Reinado is the prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, known as one of the richest and smartest men in the country. He also is a Portuguese-speaking sophisticate who is charged with masterminding much of the good as well as bad governance of the country while at the same time remaining one of the least-loved figures among the people.
A poll published by an international nongovernmental organization two years ago gave him about a 50 percent approval rating.
The average man and woman in the streets of East Timor truly love their president, and have actually voted for him. But no one ever voted for Prime Minister Alkatiri. They only voted for the ruling Fretilin Party, which in turn chose Alkatiri.
The problem, as I was told, was that few knew their vote for Fretilin meant a vote for Alkatiri as prime minister.
The extreme view of the prime minister held by Alfredo is that unless Alkatiri steps down, the rebels will not put down their weapons. How 595 soldiers without many weapons can hold a nation hostage can only be explained by the sympathy that many Timorese share with the rebel leader's view of the prime minister, whom they consider arrogant and aloof.
They also suspect he ordered a mini-massacre of some of the striking soldiers as well as unarmed police officers.
The charge is that the disintegration of East Timor began on the outskirts of the capital on April 28 when the suburb of Tasi Tolu went up in smoke, and seven rebel soldiers were shot dead after the prime minister commanded the regular army (over which the constitution gives him no power) to pursue and destroy the rebel soldiers.
I was there that afternoon and saw the smoke and the fear it engendered as people remembered the days of Indonesia's retreat from the country. It was after this key event that Maj. Reinado joined the rebels, and they immediately embraced him as their leader.
As soon as the smoke started billowing from Dili, as the Peace Corps country director, I ordered all 46 volunteers to "stand fast," and within 72 hours had them on a plane to Bangkok. Many left without saying goodbye and without any possessions other than their U.S. passports.
Amidst their tears, shock and even anger at being plucked out of their village homes so abruptly, they were processed out of the Peace Corps and sent home because of the serious prognosis for East Timor contained in intelligence reports.
So is there hope for Reinado's rebels and East Timor?
My sense of the man and the country is that the latest proposal to form a new interim government headed by President Gusmao until elections can be held next year will prevail.
Will Reinado accept this? I think so, because a transitional government will not have a Alkatiri as prime minister, and East Timor will likely land on its feet in a few months after the past six weeks of free-fall and violence.
Gene Ward, the Peace Corps country director in East Timor, was evacuated with his staff and 46 Peace Corps volunteers a few weeks ago. He now lives in Hawai'i Kai.