Rumor, Intrigue and the Demise of a Key Player in East Timor's Latest Crisis

Relatives of fugitive military leader Alfredo Reinado and Leopoldinho carry their coffins during the funeral in Dili on Feb. 14, 2008. (Photo: Bay Ismoyo / AFP-Getty Images)

East Timor's president, Jose Ramos-Horta, was shot on Feb. 11 by rebel soldiers in front of his idyllic home on the outskirts of Dili. It appears that he was attacked by a group of renegade soldiers. The president was airlifted to Australia for further treatment, and he has since undergone five operations.

This incident is shocking, but shows how unstable the situation in East Timor still is. The "crisis" that started in 2006 is far from over, and the country's security forces are unable to provide security—even to the president himself. Once again, foreign troops and resources have been pledged to restore stability and development in East Timor.

The turmoil that has afflicted the country is a result of a complex political reality, and a society fractioned and weary after achieving the goal of independence. The attempted assassination of the president and prime minister last week must therefore be put into context.

No Present Without a Past

In May 2005, the special representative of the United Nations secretary general, in a speech marking the end of the organization's peacekeeping operation in East Timor, declared that its departure showed the world's recognition of Timor as a safe and peaceful country, whose security agencies were able to take responsibility for its internal and external security.

The outbreak of violence that started a year later sharply illustrates that this assessment was decidedly overoptimistic. In April 2006, the capital, Dili, went up in flames after the dismissal of 600 soldiers—nearly one-third of the military—who protested against discrimination within the ranks of the newly formed Timorese army. The initially peaceful protest culminated in the death of at least 37 people and the displacement of two-thirds of the capital's residents.

General frustration with the government's failure to alleviate high unemployment and corruption, combined with objections to their response to turmoil in the defense force, encouraged numerous Timorese to take up arms and join armed groups. Violent gangs of mostly unemployed youths joined the disaffected soldiers, roaming the streets of Dili, burning down houses, and torching cars.

Some members of the police force defected to join the dismissed soldiers, known as "the petitioners," and openly confronted the military. Lethal clashes between elements of the national police force (P.N.T.L.) and the military (F-F.D.T.L.) were followed by widespread rioting and looting in the capital. Law and order broke down, and within days, the leadership of P.N.T.L. disintegrated.

Both the P.N.T.L. and the F-F.D.T.L. are not perceived to have the trust of the population or the capacity to provide adequate security and order. Past behavior of some P.N.T.L. members while on duty reduced public confidence in the institution: some police members have been involved in sexual harassment, human rights violations, illegal weapons distribution, and black market activities. The P.N.T.L. has been accused in a Human Rights Watch report of gross human rights violations and "police abuse has become one of East Timor's most worrying human rights problems" (2006). Moreover, neither organization is regarded as politically neutral.

Until the election in the summer of 2007, the F-F.D.T.L. fell under the control of President Xanana Gusmão, a former guerilla leader, while the P.N.T.L. reported to Rogerio Lobato, a long time rival of Gusmão and a staunch Fretilin man who was also regarded as a liability by many within the party. The internal divisions within the leadership date back to the civil war and the Indonesian occupation. Both institutions became internally fragmented due to their mixture of members from different regions and political backgrounds.

Though ethnic and regional divisions had not previously been prominent in East Timor, the April 2006 dispute had a significant regional component, and such affiliations quickly gained currency. Most of "the petitioners" came from the West of the country and complained that they suffered discrimination in a force dominated by officers from the East (reflecting the force's origins in the eastern-based, pre-independence, anti-Indonesian, armed resistance movement). A similar scenario could be observed in the police force, where some members served under the former Indonesian police, mainly from the west, while others were former members of the armed resistance, mainly from the east.

Almost 70 percent of disciplinary cases within the military resulted from confrontations with police personnel, many of whom were recruits from the former local Indonesian police force (International Institute for Strategic Studies 2006). The problem culminated in a massacre in late May 2006, when F-F.D.T.L. soldiers killed 10 unarmed police officers under United Nations protection.

Regional tensions affected not only the security forces but increasingly Timorese civilians who identified themselves with either east or west. Violent groups of youths from different parts of the country took advantage of the situation and made street fighting a regular occurrence in Dili. A catholic priest described the situation as "east against west, soldiers against soldiers, police against soldiers, everyone against everyone.… It's total madness" (ABC News Online 2006).

In the midst of the chaos, after a request from the Timorese government, Australia formed a multinational peacekeeping force to restore order in late May 2006. The removal of the Fretilin-led government and the subsequent electoral victory of the new government led by Gusmão took place under the guardianship of a United Nations-authorized Australian and New Zealand International Stabilization Force. Up until the attempted coup, there were approximately 1,000 international military personnel and 1,500 members of the United Nations police in East Timor. Fresh troops from Australia have arrived in Dili.

Major Reinado Becomes a Romantic Figure

Amid the generalized mistrust of institutions that were meant to provide security and a leadership that was meant to honor the constitution certain individuals became popular symbols among the population. Maj. Alfredo Reinado became a crucial figure at the time of the crisis. He led a group of military personnel and members of other security forces out of Dili. There, Major Reinado and his men pledged allegiance to Gusmão and Alfredo's role in the crisis became both ambiguous and iconic over time. Reinado became a symbol of the disenfranchised—youths, the poor, veterans—and he became a key figure to balancing peace in East Timor.

Reinado was arrested in 2006, but escaped from Becora prison, in downtown Dili, together with 56 other inmates, and later boasted in an interview that he waved at New Zealand soldiers as he left. Reinado stayed in hiding, and calls for him to submit himself to justice failed. He remained defiant and after his men raided weapons from a police post in March 2007, Gusmão sanctioned an Australian operation to capture him.

The operation in Same resulted in several deaths, but Reinado eluded his pursuers and his popularity grew among Dili youths. Reinado was able to accept the projected hopes of many of those for whom independence brought more disappointment and poverty. The youth in particular has become increasingly frustrated by the lack of government response. Combined with boredom, lack of opportunities for constructive activity, and extensive alcohol abuse, Dili's unemployment rate of a staggering 70 percent contributes to the volatile situation.

Reinado was a liability, but he was also bold and charismatic. His defiant messages to the authorities and vanishing acts made him a romantic figure that resonated with a generation that had lost its heroes. Journalist Max Stahl has called him East Timor's Che Guevara, "a poster figure on laptops and graffiti sketches around Dili." And "like a poster character, the meaning of his protest shifted its ground" (2008).

While most media reports have been quick to qualify the assassination attempt as a coup, others are more cautious. James Dunne, a former Australian consul in East Timor, told the Australian Broadcasting Company: "Clearly, there is more to this than meets the eye and we need to know a lot more about it."

"As a coup, it was a very unlikely coup, totally botched and certainly one not in keeping with somebody who served as a major," he added (quoted in Australian Associated Press 2008).

Stahl suggests that one possibility is that the assassination attempt was a desperate measure after 77 of "the petitioners" were reinstated in the army a week earlier. Perhaps Reinado feared losing his position as a key figure in the balance of maintaining peace in East Timor.

At this point, it is too early to tell. However, a final reflection on the role of Reinado in Timorese society and the political scene as it is perceived by the population may perhaps be provided by the rumors that circulated in Dili in the hours after the attack.

Rumor is often cited by observers as playing a conspicuous role in crises, particularly in East Timor. Although it is impossible to compile rumors at any given time, at the early stages of an emergency there is little reliable information circulating, and rumors become the common "knowledge currency."

One blogger writes, "Usually, the unconfirmed stories are about 90 percent correct but that 10 percent error can affect conclusions by 100 percent. Some local media were reporting that the president had died, which everyone seems to agree is not the case. It is rarely straightforward here" (Dili-gence 2008). These forms of misinformation may say more about the situation than is commonly assumed.

Some bloggers may provide the key to understanding the situation in East Timor better than media reports that are more readily available. Another blogger cited Radio Timor-Leste as reporting that Major Reinado was in fact staying as a guest in the president's home (Xanana Republic Gazette 2008). Ramos-Horta is known in Dili to house guests on a regular basis.

If true, this would prove not only ironic but incongruous with most portrayals of the "renegade major." If proved untrue, it still shows that the Reinado was perceived not as a man on the margins of the Timorese political scene but as an essential part of it. This is a perception that does not always transpire in the international media.

In fact, Timorese authorities had been negotiating with a sometimes-cooperative Reinado from the beginning of the 2006 crisis. Although he had become increasingly defiant and uncooperative, the authorities had decided that it was best to engage him in dialogue. On Tuesday, the Australian foreign minister acknowledged that the president and prime minister of East Timor had requested that the International Stabilization Force halt the hunt for Reinado nine months ago, and that the best way forward had been deemed to engage him in dialogue (ABC News 2008).

In a country with many heroes, and one great enemy (the Indonesian occupier and its stooges), it is difficult for outside observers to let go of eternal heroes and submit to the confusing reality of the Timorese political scene today. The events of Feb. 11 have been shocking and tragic for, above all, the Timorese people themselves. Observers must portray the situation in its full complexity.

The problems East Timor faces are numerous and multidimensional. The final report of the Commission for Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation in Timor-Leste (CAVR) warned that "the deep divisions in our society from 25 years of conflict, and the violence which entered East Timorese political life in 1975, remain a potential stumbling block to the development of a sustainable culture of democracy and peace in Timor-Leste" (CAVR 2005).

These factors, combined with very high unemployment, widespread poverty, and pervasive trauma provided a fertile ground that allowed what could have been a manageable protest to explode into protracted violence. The turmoil that has afflicted the country in recent years has put additional layers of complexity in the Timorese reality.


ABC News. 2008. "E. Timor Called Off Hunt for Reinado: Smith." Feb. 12.

Australian Associated Press. 2008. "Gusmão's Wife Tells of Gunmen Horror." The Age, Feb. 12.

Barker, A. 2006. "'Total Madness' as Gangs Fight in Dili." ABC News Online, May 27.

CAVR. 2005. "Chega! The Report of the Commission for Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation in Timor-Leste." Oct. 31.

Dili-gence. 2008. "More From the Corral." Feb. 11.

Human Rights Watch. 2006.  "Tortured Beginnings: Police Violence and the Beginnings of Impunity in East Timor." April 20.

International Institute for Strategic Studies. 2006. "Turmoil in Timor-Leste: Nation-Building Unravels. Strategic Comments, Vol. 12 (5).

Stahl, M. 2008. "Reinado May Be the Che Guevara of East Timor." ABC, Feb. 12.

Xanana Republic Gazette. 2008. "Update." Feb. 11.

Sara Gonzalez Devant is a freelance writer. She worked in Timor-Leste between 2005 and 2006. Her dissertation "Displacement in the 2006 Dili Conflict: Dynamics of an Ongoing Conflict" won the prize for best dissertation 2006-2007 at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford. The paper is published as a Refugee Studies Centre Working Paper (January 2008 WP45).

During the humanitarian crisis in East Timor in 2006, Gonzalez Devant volunteered for a Timorese nongovernmental organization that worked with the displaced population. She also worked for the National Disasters Management Office during this time.

Gonzalez Devant graduated with a distinction in Master of Science in forced migration at the University of Oxford in 2007. She graduated from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London in Bachelor of Arts (Honors) Law and Politics in 2005.

Carole Reckinger is a freelance writer. She worked in East Timor between 2005 and 2006. She has traveled widely in Asia and has worked on a number of research projects. She holds a Master of Science in international politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies and a Bachelor of Arts in development studies and Southeast Asian studies from the same university.