June 24, 2006

East Timor ruling party meets to debate PM’s future

By David Fox

DILI (Reuters) - Leaders of East Timor's ruling Fretilin
party were meeting on Sunday, guarded by international
peacekeepers, to discuss the fate of embattled Prime Minister
Mari Alkatiri, blamed for nearly two months of violence.

Alkatiri's resignation has been the rallying cry during
protests by thousands of Timorese that have peaked in the past
five days after damaging revelations in an Australian news
documentary linked him to a plot to arm a civilian militia.

The revelations prompted the tiny nation's hugely popular
president, Xanana Gusmao, to threaten to quit, saying he was
ashamed of the country's political leaders.

While he later pulled back, the bad blood between him and
Alkatiri is now out in the open. Diplomats say one of them must
go -- and it won't be Gusmao.

"Alkatiri's position is very shaky," said one Western
diplomat who asked not to be named. "It is just a matter of

Alkatiri, re-elected Fretilin's leader in May by the
party's 80-member central committee in a show of hands, is
prime minister by virtue of their parliamentary majority.

He insists he will not resign unless the party asks him to.

Gusmao, who quit the party in the 1970s to concentrate on
leading an insurgency against Indonesia's often brutal colonial
rule, won the presidency by an overwhelming majority when the
country became the world's newest independent nation in 2002.

The street protests have become something of a popularity
contest between the two men more akin to an election race.

Gusmao, jailed by Indonesia for his role in the armed
struggle, is popularly known as "big brother" by virtually all
Timorese and is mobbed by supporters wherever he goes.


Alkatiri, on the other hand, is widely mistrusted, not just
because he is a Muslim in a staunchly Roman Catholic country
but also for his less-than-impressive liberation struggle
credentials. He spent years in exile in Mozambique and Angola,
and critics say he was influenced by their socialist policies.

He has not been seen in public for weeks, and always
travels under tight security.

With unemployment running at about 70 percent in a nation
of around 1 million, Alkatiri is accused of failing to use the
country's revenues from oil and gas exploration rights in the
Timor Sea to build a viable economy and create jobs.

He is also blamed for mishandling a dispute by around half
of the 1,400-strong army that led to a split in the security
forces and widespread violence and looting that only ended with
the arrival of an Australian-led intervention force.

On Sunday, Portuguese GNR riot police blocked access to
Fretilin's Dili headquarters on the main airport road to
prevent protesters from disrupting the meeting.

There were few protesters out early in the capital on
Sunday, many Timorese instead going to church to pray for

"We need the situation to go back to normal. We want to go
back to our homes," said Mario Guttirez who has camped out in
the grounds of a church with his family for over a month since
rioting youth gangs torched his home after the army break-up.

Thousands are still living in makeshift camps as a result
of that violence, sheltering under tarpaulin sheets and reliant
on United Nations food aid.


If Fretilin does persuade Alkatiri to go, one possible
successor is Ana Pessoa, one of two women in his cabinet.

Pessoa told Portuguese radio on Saturday that she was
"ready to accept responsibilities" if Alkatiri resigned as long
as that decision was "shared by all organs of state."

She was said to be returning on Sunday from a trip to

The man most Western diplomats privately say they would
like as prime minister is Jose Ramos-Horta, a former Nobel
peace prize winner who appears to steer clear of Fretilin
politics but is also enormously popular among ordinary

A close friend of Gusmao and also Pessoa's ex-husband, the
West-leaning Ramos-Horta -- currently foreign and interior
minister -- is seen as more likely to implement labor-intensive
infrastructure projects and manage loans and aid with more

East Timor was a Portuguese colony for centuries before a
revolution in Lisbon in 1975 gave the territory a brief taste
of independence. Indonesian troops invaded a few days later and
Jakarta annexed East Timor in 1976.

After a 1999 vote for independence marked by violence
blamed largely on pro-Jakarta militia with ties to the
Indonesian army, an international peacekeeping force moved into
the territory, ushering in a transitional period of U.N.
administration before East Timor became a fully-fledged nation
in 2002.