UN's 'eagle of liberty' more like a dodo

The world's newest country is under foreign occupation once again. David Shanks, who reported from Timor before and since independence, explains the origins of the latest crisis

After the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for freedom from Indonesia's brutal, illegal 24-year occupation, Kofi Annan's special representative flew in with the words: "The eagle of liberty has landed." Almost seven years later Jamsheed Marker's UN eagle – intended as a model for nation-building – resembles a dodo.

The UN's 191st country is now under a new – Australian-led – occupation. Though Australia's new, invited intervention has domestic cross-party support and its army chief intends an "honest broker" role, Timor's international activist friends are uneasy. East Timor has been an awkward customer in oil and gas negotiations with a greedy conservative Australian government.

Canberra now has Dili, the East Timorese capital, over a barrel in more ways than one, they say. "Back for good" said a headline in the Australian newspaper.

Australian, Malaysian, New Zealand and Portuguese forces have gone to sort out an in-fighting Timorese army, with renegade soldiers attacking police, senior government figures openly disagreeing, rampaging gangs and terrified Timorese fleeing yet again to the mountains in their thousands.

Old talk of repartitioning the island of Timor has even resurfaced. Before the 1999 referendum this came from the top of Indonesia's colonial command.

Responsibility for not having "the wisdom or will" to see trouble coming has been shouldered by Timor's able Foreign Minister, Jose Ramos-Horta.

The reasons are very complex but one immediate – and little reported – spark came over six weeks ago when former rebel leader President Xanana Gusmao returned from a trip to Portugal, the former former colonial power, and implicitly criticised the army chief for sacking 591 striking soldiers – over a third of Timor's army – while the president, prime minister, and foreign minister were all out of the country.

Mainly from the west of the country, "Loromonu", the renegades complained that most of the commanders came from the east, "Lorosae", and that they gave preferment to their own. The remoter and ethnically distinct east saw the cruellest treatment from the Indonesians.

"Xanana" told journalists that proper procedures had not been followed by General Taur Matan Ruak. News of the popular but largely ceremonial president's remarks gave the renegades a feeling that right was on their side. After several days of street demonstrations and then five street killings of protesters by loyal security forces, violence escalated.

Another spark was the re-election of the less than popular prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, as head of the ruling Fretilin party in what many saw as dubious circumstances.

Mari Alkatiri was challenged at an 18 May party congress by Dili's ambassador to the US, Jose Luis Guterres, over the leader's handling of the brewing unrest. When the traditional secret ballot was abandoned for a show of hands, Guterres withdrew his challenge.

In recent days a rift between Gusmao and Alkatiri can be judged from the PM's response to the president's declaration that he was taking charge of all security, including the international forces. Without explaining who might be behind it, Alkatiri alleged an attempted coup d'etat.

He didn't mean Gusmao but he was "confident" the president would "not cease to respect the Constitution... which he swore to comply with". In spite of renegade calls for Alkatiri's dismissal by Gusmao, the two have since been mending fences.

From the moment Mari Alkatiri took office at independence in 2002, his role as a Muslim of Yemeni origin who campaigned from the safe distance of Timor's diaspora throughout the struggle, was resented. He was based in Mozambique.

He has never courted popularity but has been a tough negotiator with Australia on oil. And he is known to favour justice for victims of the Indonesian occupation over the toothless Truth and Reconciliation process favoured by Gusmao and Ramos-Horta, as a way of normalising relations with Indonesia. The traumatised Timorese find it virtually impossible to just put the past behind them, activists say. But now the case for justice is even weaker as voices, especially in Indonesia, wail: "I told you so".

In the current crisis Ramos-Horta has referred to the rapidity of rumour-spreading, mainly by mobile phone (in hot-headed Dili). Asked who was behind the chaos, Ramos-Horta likened the 1999 Indonesian-army inspired militia violence to last month's marauding gangs, saying the methods were similar. One inheritance from the Indonesians is that an estimated 6,000 youths are trained in martial arts. The rate of unemployment in East Timor is over 60 per cent.

Some of this information describes the root causes of this disaster as I have been hearing from international and local friends of this tumultuous experiment with post-colonial independence. But one major factor was that UN peacekeepers, who departed last year, left about ten years too soon. This also reflects the view of retired Australian Major General Mike Smith, former deputy commander of the UN force that came in 1999.

The model was flawed anyway, institutionalising as it did the tensions between an unclearly defined, often undisciplined army and an ill-trained police force that served the Indonesians – and so is regarded with suspicion.

In a country where most occupation survivors are either former fighters, collaborators, or had a foot in both camps, many feel it is time to look again at the model for nurturing a (currently absent) sense of national unity as East Timor faces parliamentary and presidential elections next year.