Why East Timor is falling apart

Rebel leader Alfredo Reinado called Thursday for the prime minister's exit.

Emerging from the still smoking ruins of her neighborhood in Dili, Rita Mesquita was in no doubt as to who is responsible for the arson, looting, and gun battles that have plunged East Timor's capital into chaos.

"I blame the prime minister for the destruction and all the tragedy here," the 45-year-old mother says, angrily pointing at the burned-out remains of tin-roofed houses. "He's the worst man I know."

Mrs. Mesquita is not alone. As vicious ethnic unrest roils the country, requiring an Australian-led expeditionary force to descend on Asia's poorest country for the second time in less than a decade, there is a widespread perception that Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri bears much of the responsibility.

From the streets of Dili to the mountains of the interior, many say his government's handling of a recent standoff within the army is indicative of the favoritism, corruption, and arrogance that they say has plagued East Timor's government since the nation gained independence in 2002.

Instead of listening to the grievances of the 600 soldiers that went on strike in March to protest alleged ethnic discrimination, the government sacked them. The move has provoked successive waves of tit-for-tat violence, and the renegade troops have taken to the hills and remain in a tense face-off with the government.

"Alkatiri is a criminal and should face justice," says the rebels' charismatic young leader, Lieutenant Commander Alfredo Reinado, as he paces the verandah of the hill-top Portuguese-era villa he has commandeered as rebel headquarters. Thursday, he said there will be no end to the crisis unless the prime minister resigns.

A Portuguese-speaking sophisticate, Mr. Alkatiri appears to have difficulty connecting with the mass of East Timorese, who speak more than 30 local languages. Many regard him as arrogant, aloof, and dictatorial. He also lacks credibility: Unlike President Xanana Gusmao, who devoted years to fighting the occupying Indonesian military from jungle hideouts, Alkatiri spent the same period in exile in Mozambique.

Indonesia had invaded the country after a civil war in the early 1970s. Up to 180,000 people are estimated to have died in the ensuing 24-year occupation, with the Indonesian military conducting a scorched-earth policy against East Timorese guerilla fighters.

The tiny country - which spent 400 years as a neglected Portuguese colonial backwater - voted overwhelmingly for independence in 1999, unleashing a wave of violence and destruction of infrastructure by Indonesian soldiers and pro-Jakarta militias.

Seven years on, the national solidarity that garnered much praise internationally appears to be in tatters. Lt. Cdr. Reinado and his renegade troops, which constitute half the army, have deserted their posts and are hiding out in the mountainous interior, supported by elements of the police.

They accuse Alkatiri of shooting of five unarmed protesters in Dili last month - charges that Alkatiri denies. Gangs of disenfranchised youths armed with machetes, swords, and even bows and arrows, have embarked on a series of tit-for-tat attacks, and Dili's ramshackle neighborhoods have been set alight.

The clashes have further exposed the East-West fault line in East Timorese society, with Easterners regarding themselves as the mainstay of the struggle against Indonesian occupation, and Westerners perceived as being too close to Indonesian West Timor, just across the border.

These murderous ethnic and political divisions have been exacerbated by chronic underdevelopment and 50 percent unemployment: East Timor's illiteracy rate is among the highest in Asia, the population is soaring and many families live on $1 a day. Huge offshore oil and natural gas deposits promise to bring billions of dollars' worth of revenue, but much of the production has yet to start because of years of acrimonious talks over Australia's overlapping claims.

Mr. Gusmao, the president and a hero of the liberation to whom the disaffected soldiers profess allegiance, announced on Tuesday that he had assumed all powers over the military and police, in what was seen as a snub to Alkatiri. But the rebels say that is not enough to diffuse the standoff, and want the prime minister's resignation forthwith.

Signs of political movement emerged later in the day with the resignation of the defense minister Roque Rodrigues and the powerful interior minister, Rogerio Tiago Lobato.

But descending the twisting mountain road that leads back to Dili, plumes of smoke could be seen rising from the most recently torched houses. Thousands of desperate refugees, made homeless by the unrest, stormed a government warehouse and looted 50- kilogram sacks of rice before being chased away by hard-pressed Australian troops in full combat gear.

"Get back and stay back," screams one trooper, armed with an automatic rifle.

"We can understand their frustration," says another soldier, Corporal Jarrett Vesely. "They are just hungry."

Australian armored personnel carriers were dispatched to help quell the chaos, Black Hawk helicopters clattered overhead, and tear gas was used to break up rival gangs marauding along potholed roads lined with crumbling colonial villas.

The Australians have been put in an almost impossible role as policemen, peacemakers, and emergency food-aid providers. But despite their robust tactics they have been warmly welcomed - even by the renegade Reinado.

"They can't deliver a miracle in one day, but their conduct so far has been very good," he says, surveying the thatched huts, dirt tracks, and coffee plantations in the valley below.

"We have to cooperate with the international forces, but in the end it's only the Timorese who can solve East Timor's problems."

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