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East Timor Declares State Of Emergency As Violence Spreads

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As President Xanana Gusmao assumes emergency powers we speak with Jose Luis Guterres, East Timor’s ambassador to the United States and United Nations, and Charlie Scheiner, co-founder of East Timor Action Network, both of whom have just returned from East Timor. [includes rush transcript]

We turn now to the situation in East Timor. East Timor’s President Xanana Gusmao assumed emergency powers earlier today in order to give him control over the army and police.

Gusmao’s order comes as violence in the country has reached its highest level since Timor gained its independence in 2002. At least 30 people are reported to have been killed and tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced.

Several weeks ago Timorese Prime Minister Mari Alkatari fired more than 600 striking members of the country’s military. This exacerbated tensions between the country’s military and police forces in what is Asia”s newest and poorest state. As rumors of attacks against police units spread through Timor’s capital of Dili, police fled, leading to a complete breakdown in security.

Last week, UN and East Timorese officials called for the deployment of a multinational peace-keeping force composed of Australian, Malaysian, and Portugese troops. On Monday, Timor’s President and Prime Minister met in an attempt to resolve the crisis. As Timorese President Xanana Gusmao called for an end to the fighting, protesters gathered outside the meeting, many of them calling for the resignation of the Prime Minister. The Timorese cabinet has also asked the defense minister, Rogerio Lobato, to resign.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined in the studio right now by East Timor’s ambassador to the United States and the United Nations, Jose Luis Guterres. And we’re joined on the telephone by Charlie Scheiner. He’s co-founder of the East Timor Action Network, and works closely with Lao Hamutuk, Institute for Reconstruction Monitoring and Analysis in Timor. Both of them returned from East Timor yesterday. And we welcome you both to Democracy Now! Ambassador, let’s begin with you. What is happening in East Timor?

JOSE LUIS GUTERRES: We have a very dramatic situation. It started by part of the army being [unintelligible] by the government in what is now called petitioners. They claim of being discriminated in the army. So the problems started as a very small one. But at that time the government didn’t pay much attention to the problem; and so later on it became a huge problem. Then many of our — the population of Dili, almost half of them, they took refuge in the mountains in the eastern or western district of East Timor.

AMY GOODMAN: People, if they’ve heard of Timor, perhaps the one thing they know is about the slaughter of [by] the Indonesians over a quarter of a century. And now, since independence, this is the first time we’re hearing about East Timor, and this is to do with Timorese themselves, police, military gangs, fighting against each other. Charlie Scheiner, you were attacked at — the house you were staying was attacked. Who attacked it — in Dili, the capital of Timor?

CHARLIE SCHEINER: Saturday morning, at about 7:00 in the morning there was a fight on the street outside our house by two youth gangs. Most of the violence that’s been happening in the last few days is not identifiably done by any of the factions of the military or the police, but it’s unemployed young men who are organized in groups — sometimes they’re called 'martial arts groups' but they’re more or less gangs — that are taking advantage of the current lack of security to settle old scores or to assert their authority. So there were two gangs fighting on the street in front of our house, and then one of them decided, for reasons that don’t make any sense to me, that our house was a target and they, for about 10 minutes, pelted our house with rocks and smashed all the windows. We left with the support of the U.S. embassy and Australian military a little bit later, and I’ve learned since that the house was burned to the ground a few hours after we left. This is one of — similar stories could be told by hundreds of people in East Timor. It wasn’t anything uniquely targeted at us.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you certainly helped to expose what was going on in Timor for the many years under Indonesian occupation. What is your sense, Charlie Scheiner, of where this is coming from and the significance of, well, seeing Australian troops come in once again, and then troops from New Zealand, troops from Malaysia, troops from Portugal.

CHARLIE SCHEINER: Well, I think it’s a very sad day for East Timor and for the people of East Timor, of course, and for all of us who worked so that they could be independent, that they’ve had to sacrifice their independence slightly and rely on foreign troops. And it will be difficult, I think, for them to recover both independence in terms of political government but also independence in terms of being able to be treated as an equal by — particularly by Australia, who has taken advantage of them many times.

The source of the violence is very complicated. As you talked about before, there were 600 soldiers fired from the military in February because they claimed about discrimination, and then they essentially went on strike. They didn’t go to their barracks. But I think that’s just sort of the trigger for underlying tensions and differences that are in many different areas, and it’s not as simple as to say, well, this is just because the easterners don’t like the westerners or vice versa, or because the military doesn’t like the police, or because people are — many young unemployed men particularly — are angry that some people have more money and more resources than they do. All of those are factors, you know, as is the way the government has handled this, particularly the Prime Minister. A lot of people say he should have handled it better and been more open to discussion. I think there’s also a factor that the leaders of the government, particularly the Prime Minister and the President of Parliament, seem unable to separate their party roles from their national roles over the last few weeks, or few months even, which tended to exacerbate things, because, really, only the President was calling for national unity.

When you get all of those things together and you combine it with the fact that the major perpetrators of crimes during the Indonesian occupation were never held accountable — and since then, the court system in East Timor for crimes committed since 1999 is not functioning very well — you get a situation where people feel they can commit crimes and get away with it, that that climate of impunity has been created. And you also get a situation where people who are victims, for example, the police — there were 12 police that were shot down by the military last Thursday — that they now feel there’s no justice that will be available through the courts or through legal processes, so the only way that they’re going to get justice is if they take it into their own hands. You combine all those things together, and plus 80% unemployment and the poorest country in Asia, and you get a recipe for disaster.

AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Jose Luis Guterres, do you agree with that analysis — the surprise of many that when there was a strong call for war crimes tribunals to investigate what the Indonesian military had done over 25 years, the Timorese government was not at the forefront of those calls, but simply talking about moving on, and now, perhaps, the repercussions of that?

JOSE LUIS GUTERRES: Well, the government created with Indonesia a bilateral commission to find the truth and, in the final analysis, search for justice. As you know, we are in a situation where East Timor is a very small country. It is the poorest country in Asia. And we have to know how to live with our big neighbors. What the government did in agreement with the President of the Republic, Xanana Gusmão, was to create a debt mechanism with Indonesia, and the final decision will be taken by the parliament of both countries, Indonesia and East Timor. These two countries are now democratic countries, countries that are committed to human rights. I believe that at the end of the day the two countries will find a solution that will deal with justice and the truth at the same time.

AMY GOODMAN: And the sense that Timorese have that there is no justice, that there’s no repercussions for people, for example, attacking others?

JOSE LUIS GUTERRES: I don’t share that view because the event that was mentioned by Charles Scheiner where the police officer was shot by some soldiers, the commander of the army forces, General Matan Ruak, made clear commitment that they will be punished. At the same time, they’re looting the streets. Many Timorese are not happy with that. And I believe that we are today are in the right direction since the President announced that he will be the major responsible for the security and defense.

AMY GOODMAN: You ran against the Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri, for the secretary generalship of the party which would have made you Prime Minister. You’ve just returned. You pulled out at the end when they weren’t going to have a secret ballot, but people were going to raise their hands, and you felt that that would surely tip it to the Prime Minister, afraid — they would be afraid to vote otherwise. Do you think Mari Alkatiri should resign, the Prime Minister of Timor?

JOSE LUIS GUTERRES: Well, I did run for — announce my candidacy to secretary general of my party, a party that, together with Alkatiri and other 12 members founded in ’75 — in ’74 because I believe that competition for leadership is good for democracy within a party. And when in a democratic society you have democratic parties, then the society will become more transparent and more democratic. So I did it for these — the main reasons. At the same time, I thought that it was important for us to change the way how the government had been handling the relation with the public. I am more for dialogue rather than confrontation.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that the Prime Minister should resign now? Are you joining that call?

JOSE LUIS GUTERRES: Right now, my position is that Fretilin, my party, has the legitimacy to govern up to the end. And the Prime Minister together with the President right now, they are sharing some responsibilities together. In the way how decisions were taken few hours ago, I agree with that in the sense that the Prime Minister is not resigning but probably there will be a shuffle in the government.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us. East Timor’s ambassador to the United States, United Nations, Jose Luis Guterres, and also Charlie Scheiner, co-founder of the East Timor Action Network.

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