An Attempted Coup in East Timor?

East Timorese Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri listens to his phone during a press conference. (Photo: Candido Alves / AFP-Getty Images)

In a wide-ranging interview last week, East Timor's embattled Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri accused opposition groups and their foreign supporters of repeatedly trying to convince prominent commanders in the East Timorese armed forces to overthrow his government in an armed coup. "They were always trying to get the command of Falintil, F-FDTL. They tried to convince the command to order and participate in a coup. They failed." It was then he said his opponents embarked on a program to weaken the influence of the military. "When they failed to bring the command to join their forces in a coup then what they did is they tried to break Falintil F-FDTL and they did it by bringing out of the barracks almost 600 which they called the petitioners."

For the first time Prime Minister Alkatiri has given his version of what exactly led to the chaos in the capital Dili in late May and the breakdown of law and order that led to 130,000 internal refugees and the deployment of 2,200 troops from Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia to quell the violence. He says his political opponents exploited ethnic divisions within the police force to create unrest. "Then they try to influence the PNTL [East Timor National police force]. How did they do it? Through this kind of propaganda, Loromunu, Loro Sae [West vs. East]. They succeeded in dividing the people within the PNTL. This is the whole strategy. Then they put groups of PNTL against groups of F-FDTL in confrontation. And they succeeded again. This is why I requested assistance from outside," he said.

Senior sources within the command of the East Timorese armed forces; the F-FDTL confirmed that not one but three separate attempts had been made to the leadership of the F-FDTL to lead a coup against Prime Minister Alkatiri in the last 18 months.

I was able to confirm that following the weeks of mass demonstrations against Alkatiri's government in April 2005 the commander of the F-FDTL, Brigadier Taur Matan Ruak had been approached to lead a coup. He rejected the offer. Again early this year he was approached and requested to lead a coup in a meeting with two prominent East Timorese leaders and two foreign nationals. Again he refused, reportedly telling them it was against the constitution and would set an unacceptable precedent. One of his leading deputies, Lieutenant Colonel Falur Rate Laek, a former regional commander from Falintil and a veteran of the war against Indonesia, was also approached by the same two local leaders and foreign nationals. He also refused and reported the incident to his command. Due to the sensitivity of the information and the implications for the current situation the nationalities of the foreigners was not revealed. From the perspective of the F-FDTL, they viewed the current crisis, the fighting with police followed by the burning and looting, as an attempt to divide them and destroy their institution after it became apparent the leadership of the army would not assist in a coup.

The prime minister was adamant the violence was orchestrated as a part of a program to topple his government. "It has to be institutions, some organizations, inside assisted by others outside," he said. I pressed him on this point. Who exactly was he talking about? "I think there are outside groups … can be from Australia maybe from Indonesia but not the governments. I am not accusing the government of Indonesia or the government of Australia. But still I do believe there are outside groups … we need some time to investigate this but the whole plan was very well done and very well executed."

This was not the first time the Prime Minister had called the attempts to oust him an attempted coup. He continued to deny the accusations against him and his government and dismissed them as part of a misinformation campaign run by his opposition. He said the campaign was being run by "conservative elements in institutions" both in East Timor and abroad.

Allegations against the government of Alkatiri, in some cases, proved difficult to verify.

The allegations that at least 60 people had been killed by the F-FDTL following the demonstrations by the petitioners in late April and were buried in a mass grave to the west of the city could not be checked. The priest who had claimed to have a list with 67 names on it now denied he had a list and the story went nowhere. More interesting was the existence of a group of thirty armed men under the leadership of Vincente "Rai Los" de Conceicao in the mountains above the town of Liquica equipped with FN automatic rifles. He claimed to have received the rifles from Alkatiri and the then interior minister Rogerio Lobato, who has since resigned and is now under house arrest.

Journalists who went to meet him were surprised to be directed to the house of the Carrascalao family in the hills above Liquica. They said he had told them he was issued the weapons to kill Fretilin opponents. The Carrascalao family has a history of opposition to Fretilin going back to their leadership role in the political party UDT (Timorese Democratic Union) who fought a civil war against Fretilin in 1975. Alkatiri said that he knew three of the men involved in the "Rai Los" group as they had attended the Fretilin conference in May. He also said he had had a brief meeting with them. He said he told them only to enforce security and not to kill opponents as they claimed. The F-FDTL said the Rai Los men had participated in the attack on their base in Tacitolu. The soldiers also added that Vincente de Conceicao was a former Falintil fighter who had been sacked in 2004 over embezzling paychecks.

Before the allegations regarding supplying weapons to Vincente "Rai Los" de Concecao were made public Alkatiri dismissed them as more opposition misinformation.

"The best way to overthrow somebody from power in the current situation around the world is to demonize them. That is exactly what they are trying to do and how to do it? Passing to media information like this that this man has a secret army with the objective of the secret army to eliminate others to spread violence but up until now instead of having killed someone from the opposition, what they have done is really just to fight against the FDTL. They fought against the F-FDTL in May 24th in Tacitolu. What kind of secret Fretilin group is this that they are also fighting against the FDTL? This is contradictory," said Alkatiri.

Map of East Timor. (Source: C.I.A. World Factbook)

It was frustrations within the Timorese armed forces that began this latest crisis but it had been preceded by riots against Prime Minister Alkatiri's leadership in December 2001 and a prolonged protest led by the Catholic Church against his government in April 2005. In February this year the group of soldiers from the country's west, originally numbering 140 but later growing to 591, signed a petition claiming discrimination inside the 1,300 strong East Timorese army, the F-FDTL. In March, they were dismissed from the armed forces. However, as events began to unfold the dispute quickly became the start of a series of calls for Alkatiri to resign. The prime minister was in no doubt what had taken place. He kept referring to it as an attempted coup. The events had begun with the petitioners' demonstration that had turned violent on April 28 where he had ordered the army to take control after the police ran away and in some cases joined the violence. The petitioners had marched back to the west of Dili and were kept there by the army and three people associated with them were killed in fighting with the F-FDTL.

It was at this point that Alfredo Reinado left the military command for the central hill town of Aileu, taking his weapons with him. His unit of thirty military police had been ordered to quell the violence outside the governor's building on Dili's foreshore but witnesses say they joined it. The petitioners did not have their weapons having earlier peacefully left them at their barracks. The violence of the rally, which involved burning cars and smashing the windows of the governor's building, was blamed by some on an unruly group who joined the petitioners and who came prepared with grenades and incendiary bombs to set cars alight.

Tensions rose again after Prime Minister Alkatiri was reconfirmed as leader of Fretilin during their National Congress in mid-May. Now calling himself Major, Reinado, returned to the hills above Dili with his men and was joined by some police. On the night of the 22nd, he shot at a car of F-FDTL soldiers driving back to the base in Metinaro, east of the city. Then he waited for the response. The following day while Australian SBS television was filming an interview with him, he opened fire on F-FDTL troops who had been ordered to find him. Reinado's men had prepared firing positions and had been basically waiting for the response. The following morning of the 24th, Reinado and another group of attackers tried to lay siege to the F-FDTL base at the other end of Dili in Taci Tolu. Once again they opened fire from prepared positions in what soldiers at the base said was a surprise attack from the hills above the base. The fighting went on all day as the F-FDTL responded and drove the attackers back to the west of the city. The F-FDTL themselves confirm they killed eleven of the attackers.

The following day there were attacks on the F-FDTL base in the center of Dili, the president's office, the commander of the F-FDTL Taur Matan Ruak's house, and shooting began all over Dili mainly originating from the surrounding hills. It was during this day the police were killed after the U.N. had disarmed them and the grisly images of the bloodied dead and wounded police on the road outside their base were from there. The series of attacks that began on the 22nd and led right up until the first Australians arrived on the night of the 26th appeared in retrospect to be a well coordinated assault on the institutions of the army, the government and the president and led to the complete collapse of law and order in Dili with the dissolution of the police force.

Almost a month later people in refugee camps were still trying to dissect what had happened and who exactly had fired on who in those three days. Out to the east of Dili more than a thousand refugees were living in tents among the low scrub across the road from the F-FDTL base in Metinaro. Among those there were many I recognized from the period from 1995 until 1999 when I had covered the conflict against the Indonesians. These people were mostly from the east and had been involved with the clandestine movement that worked under cover in the towns of East Timor supporting the Falintil guerrillas fighting in the mountains. David Ximenes, the former leader of the clandestine movement, was there. His house had been burnt down in Dili and he had been forced to leave. He introduced me to a policeman who had been in the F-FDTL base in Dili on the 24th of May when he said shooting had started from the direction of the police station. Celestinho Ximenes said he had watched as first a soldier was shot dead by a police sniper and then the windows shot out of the room in which Taur Matan Ruak and one of his senior commanders Lere were meeting. It was then he said the army responded with Lere ordering his men to overrun the police station. It was then the police were killed. It was the killing of the police by F-FDTL that precipitated the total collapse of the police force in Dili breaking up, according to Celestinho, into at least six different groups from Dili fleeing in different directions.

At the Taci Tolu F-FDTL base, I spoke to soldiers involved in the fighting. They confirmed they had been attacked by groups of Reinado's men, police from the Aileu based tactical response group UIR and men from a breakaway Fretilin group called Rai Los from Liquica. They pointed out where the dug in positions they had been attacked from were on the hills above the base. They said they killed eleven of them as they fought them back in a battle that lasted from first light until seven in the evening on the day of the 24th of May.

When I spoke to the commander of the Australian forces in Dili, Brigadier Mick Slater, he was grateful that the violence in Dili had tapered off. In reference to the gang violence that had confronted his forces when he arrived in Dili he said, "There were two types of gang activity. There were definitely the opportunistic gutless thugs who were out there trying to beat up on the gang from the next neighborhood and pilfer as much as they can for their own booty and I think they were probably the major source of violence in town. There were definitely groups, lets call them gangs that were definitely being manipulated and coordinated by other people from outside that gang environment. I feel very, very strongly that that was the case. Thankfully we were able to get that under control by about the fourth or fifth day." When I inquired further he said he couldn't afford to jeopardize future investigations. He praised Brigadier Taur Matan Ruak and the control he had over his men.

For Foreign Minister and now Defense Minister Jose Ramos Horta, Prime Minister Alkatiri's claims of a coup against his government are "nonsense." "If there was a coup attempt the prime minister should elaborate. A coup attempt by who? As he gets offended when people accuse him of corruption and trying to assassinate enemies he should also provide answers about who are these individuals internal and external who want to have a coup," he said. That is a question that no one at the moment, from the military leadership, to the prime minister, to the commander of the Australian intervention force and the president himself is willing to answer.