Even more trouble

Anyone interested at all would know by now that President Xanana Gusmao has requested foreign assistance from Australia, New Zealand, Portugal and Malaysia. OZ and NZ have said yes, but I am not sure everyone knows exactly the make-up of this force and what they intend to do. They may be here tomorrow.

I would guess their first task would be to secure the perimeters of Dili and ensure free movement to and from the airport. The airport is at the western edge of Dili and is separated from the troublesome Tasi Tolu area by 2 or 3 kms. The road is blockaded on the Tasi Tolu side of the airport roundabout.

The “rebels” seem to have made it clear that their target is the government and the infrastructure of Dili. I sure hope the water supply works, power stations (two diesel generator plants) and telecomms antennae are well protected tonight.

The Leader supermarket was closed this afternoon. It is about 2kms closer into the centre of Dili but slightly exposed from the south up what is known as Delta road. This is the first time I have heard of it being closed although it had pulled back its 9pm closing time to 7:30 pm and further to 5:30pm this week.

It has rained on and off this afternoon and at 9pm, it is raining quite steadily as it did yesterday. It would be pretty uncomfortable up in the hills and one would imagine disheartening for soldiers on both sides.

I think the formal government media announcement indicated one of the problems likely to be faced by a longer conflict – the fear of a loss of discipline and a need for decisive leadership at many levels in the military and police, when the pressure is on. One should also not forget that in this conflict, there are probably relatives shooting at each other and people who personally know their opponents well.

If the foreign press have not made it clear, the “rebels” do not have access to artillery, planes, copters or the like. The do have modern automatic guns and some grenade launchers but I don’t think they have much more than that. In fact, the loyal government forces probably have little more than that themselves. So there is little likelihood of any longer-range strikes on Dili (ie me) unless the rebels actually do make successful forays into central Dili.

But the “rebels” will have animal cunning and huge experience in handling a long conflict from moving bases in the hills and forests.

I guess the foreign military strategists will study the circumstances that led to the conflict losing control yesterday. Are we dealing with crazy people or did someone make an awful strategic mistake thus crossing a point of no return ?


It is really difficult trying to get a handle on what is really going on here and why.

The local press seem to have relatively easy access to the rebel groups. So the TV news gets regular feedback from the rebel groups and the government activities. However, I am not sure this represents the definitive view of the entire situation.

Now, there are foreign English-speaking reporters doing their bit to find out what is going on. However, the Portuguese media (eg LUSA) probably have a better handle on things than these guys.

The foreign embassies do their bit as they have responsibilities to their citizens, but you tend to only get formal information from them via travel warnings. Other information tends to be passed informally but with an emphasis on only reporting known facts.

A large part of the information flow comes in the form of rumour. The informal network that exists amongst Timorese is astounding. News travels fast, courtesy of mobile phones and texting. I think I have been spared a lot of the more outlandish rumours, but it is rumour that seems to spook the Timorese more than anything else.

After a couple of weeks, rumour has tended to settle a bit. I think many people are so tired of responding to rumour and going through another domestic upheaval when the rumour does not eventuate. I know some are consciously trying not to spread something they heard just in case it spooks someone else and is incorrect.

But it has made it very difficult to know just what is exactly going on. The natural tendency for foreigners I know is to compare notes on what they have seen or heard (usually via staff at their workplace). If a pattern appears, then one tends to go with it.

Personally, I like to make the distinction between rumour and speculation. I prefer to think rumour refers to reporting on historic events and speculation refers to the future. The accuracy rate of rumour (ie historic) has been a lot higher than of speculation (ie future events) and if you only knew which bits to throw away, amongst what is left is a reasonable interpretation of the facts.

So I try to ask a friend what she is hearing on her grapevine but can’t get through to her because when rumours are running hot, the mobile phone network comes to a halt. Rumour has it that the phone company is controlling access to slow the spread of rumour but that is one rumour I will happily throw away.

More Trouble

Over the weekend, there were the odd reports of minor trouble (in the Becora and Comorro areas) but none indicating (to me anyway) that things were on the edge.

It seems to have changed yesterday. The foreign press have already reported on yesterday’s issues fairly promptly. I have already heard reports from different sources which certainly confirm these press reports.

On Monday night, Major Alfredo Reinado (the “rebel” military police commander) was on TV and he seemed to be giving a form of ultimatum to the government – something along the lines of “do something to resolve the grievances of the sacked military by the end of the week or action will follow”.

I believe the Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta took steps to speak to the sacked soldiers in Ermera but it appears things must have gone wrong somewhere.

Last night’s TV news reported 2 dead and 8 wounded from fighting yesterday between Major Reinado’s group and the Timorese army (FDTL). Automatic gunfire and grenades are known to have been used and I understand that the roads to the west and east of Dili were blocked for some hours.

It could not have been comfortable for anyone out there yesterday as it had been bucketing rain on and off all day. (And revealing the numerous holes in our ceiling at home.)

Yesterday, I cycled through town during the day yesterday without a problem, but last night, the streets were pretty well deserted again.

Just to summarise some key points :

  • Yesterday’s incident with Major Alfredo Reinado’s group was on the outskirts of Becora, which is a suburb on the eastern side of Dili and the gateway to the main road to the east (ie Baucau).
  • His group is said to be no more than 40 but probably above average in military skills.
  • This location is more than 20kms from the Ermera/Gleno area to the south-west where Mr. Salsinha and his group are based (ie the “rebel” ex-soldiers).
  • It is not known (to me) if the Salsinha and Reinado groups are coordinating with each other, but it would appear that they are physically isolated from each other.
  • I do not know if the Reinado group initiated yesterday’s action or were tracked down by the military (FDTL) and effectively cornered.
  • Supposedly, some key talks had been arranged for Thursday. I don’t know if yesterday’s events change that.
  • The current fighting is on the slopes of the foothills to the east of Dili. There is no fighting in Dili proper, although some parts of Becora and Taibesse (next to Becora) are not recommended to be around.
  • Fretilin Congress

    In general, I don’t do politics for fear of being accused of taking sides and simply that I do not have close day-to-day contact with this stuff.

    But one of my relatives asked me to fill them in on what has happened at the congress. As far as I know, it went like this :

  • The Prime Minister (Mr. Alkitiri) pushed for a show of hands rather than a secret ballot, when it came the time of voting for a new Fretilin leader.
  • I think anyone with any political nouse would know that this meant that Mr. Alkitiri knew he had the numbers.
  • The challenger (Mr. Guterres) withdrew at this point.
  • At nomination time, Mr.Alkitiri was the only candidate and received 550 nominations. There were 5 against and 11 abstentions.
  • I don’t think anyone believes this vote count truly represents the balance between Mr.Alkatiri supporters and others.

    During the Saturday afternoon, there was a fleet of Alkitiri supporters driving around town – about 200 vehicles. It was like a proper election but at the end of the day, this was just an internal party election for its leader.

    Saturday was also Independence Day. Apart from a concert outside the main government buildings (Palacio do Governu), I saw no other events. The day was much quieter than it has been over the last few days.

    By the end of the week, we should know if the passing of both the Fretilin congress and Independence Day (without any trouble) will encourage the return of the many thousands who have left Dili.

    Dili Recovering #4

    I am having a bad run with place names of late. I will try to do better (& listen harder !). I am trying really hard not to be yet another source of rumour.

    It seems I have been spared most of the really outlandish rumours. But this morning, a French naval ship (the Floreal) docked at the waterfront. Apparently, this is a regular annual stop at this time of the year. Anyway, the rumour goes like this : Many foreigners will be invited onto the ship for drinks … just watch them take a small bag with all their precious belongings … then they will all leave.

    Well, I have not been invited. But if I am, I sure will be going for drinks as I have never had drinks on a French naval vessel before. But no, I won’t have a small bag with clean underwear. I will be wearing the clean underwear as you don’t want to be caught short on a French naval vessel with dirty grundies.

    I just have to mention this one. Yesterday was the first day since I have been in Dili that I have seen a roadworks gang actually lay bitumen on any road anywhere. A number of troublespots around town have received the final treatment yesterday and today. This is great news at any time, given the general state of the roads. But yesterday was also the opening of the Fretilin party congress

    Dili Recovering #3

    I made a mistake yesterday. The Fretilin congress is at the National University behind the Palacio do Governo Ginasio, formerly called GMT (Gedung Matahari Terbit). It is behind UNTIL.

    The city was a shade quieter than it has been over the last week but nothing out of the ordinary by recent standards. As for the congress, the street behind the congress location was blocked off by 2 shipping containers. On the Palacio side, the usual plastic cones were used.

    Traffic was relatively light and apart from a large police presence behind the walls of the university, there were few police in the streets. There were no protesting groups, no placards that I saw, nothing to write about really.

    I guess everyone is waiting for the results.

    Dili Recovery #2

    The Fretilin party congress starts today at the party headquarters on Comorro Road National University. At a minimum, most expect peaceful protests but no-one is sure if there will be anything more. It will be interesting to see what security services are in-place around the premises. Either too much or too little will send the wrong message and there will be many different interpretations on what too much and too little are.

    Last night, I heard music and yelling in the distance and initially was concerned, but it turned out to be a travelling political party roadshow. But rather than a political party, it was the Prime Minister (Mari Alkatiri’s) supporters in a jovial mood. It comprised a couple of open-backed trucks with sound systems and supporters hanging off them, plus about 4 buses full of supporters and another ten cars. I believe they stopped off outside Mr.Alkatiri’s current abode and that of the Fretilin party president Mr. Luolo amongst others.

    Apparently, there will be a challenge to Mr.Alkatiri’s leadership at the congress – nothing unusual about that at a party congress anywhere.

    Over the last week, Dili has slowly started returning to a more normal state. But it still has a way to go before all shops are back operating and the “internally displaced persons” return to their homes.

    The Don Bosco seminary still has around 5,000 people and Father Adriano reports that the church in Liquica (30kms to the west) still has 2 to 3,000 – mostly people from Dili. Apparently, they will not return until they see the President, Prime Minister and the disaffected soldiers (& police) in the hills all together smiling and happy. I am not sure anyone expects that anytime soon.

    But until that time, the pressure on the facilities at places like Don Bosco is starting to reach limits. A lot of international aid is keeping these places going, but people are getting tired now. It is not easy keeping these places sanitary, grass areas are now wearing away, everything is getting dirtier, the priests and nuns themselves are wearying and general health issues are adding more pressure. Don Bosco is also a school and schooling has been suspended as the classrooms have people living in them. Senior students are turning their hand to running a refugee camp. I am not sure this was ever on the Don Bosco curriculum.

    A Shameless Plug for a Movie about TL

    I would encourage those with an interest in Timor, to mark their cards and note down the screening of the TV movie “Answered by Fire”.

    It will be on Australia’s ABC presented as a 2-part tele-movie on the 21st and 28th of May. It is also available on DVD through the ABC Shop (shameless plug, but it is MY ABC as well) via the following web address :

    And if you are quick, one of the main actors, David Wenham, will be on Andrew Denton’s “Enough Rope” on 15th May (ABC 9:35pm). One presumes that it will be a forum for advertising the movie but I am also sure that David will have learnt quite a few things during the filming process.

    Alex tells me that David has been an active member of the Australia East Timor Association since the early 90s, so I expect David is extremely knowledgable.

    Alas, neither of these broadcasts will be appearing on the ABC AsiaPacific service broadcast via the IndoVision satellite TV service here.

    PS thanks to Ismenio for reminding me about the movie.

    Dili Recovering #1

    For a few days, it appeared that something “might” happen, but didn’t. All sorts of scenarios were possible but it seems that behind the scenes is where all the action is now.

    Everyone in town seems to know this one now so I may as well run it through here. On Monday, a senior government official was returning to a government office in Gleno, about 30kms from Dili. He was accompanied by about 10 police, including a relatively senior officer. The officers comprised some from the east (lorosae) and some from the west (loromonu). At some point, the senior officer instructed the lorosae police to got to a room and disarm. They were then instructed to leave the room.

    A mob outside attacked the lorosae police group while (it is said) the loromonu police stood by (armed) and did nothing. A catholic priest intervened and managed to dampen things a bit but not before one policeman was fatally wounded with a knife.

    I understand the policeman’s body was returned to his home region (Venilale/Vemasse) of Manatuto and the locals (lorosae) were pretty upset and were initially determined to travel to Dili to protest. It was said the protest would commence in Manatuto. But I believe they were convinced that other groups might join in and cause trouble and effectively negate the aims of the protest.

    On the streets, it has been pretty quiet. There has been a slow return of street vendors and a steady increase in the number of shops open.

    With the Fretilin party conference due to start on the 17th of May, there appears to be a fair bit of political jockeying for position going on. TL’s ambassador to the UN has returned and announced himself as a potential Prime Ministerial candidate. It appears the Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta has become extremely active in the media.

    But whatever comes of it, we may well know a bit more by the end of this week.

    Note : Minor factual correction made 15 May re. hometown of deceased policeman.

    And now for something completely different

    Recent events have pushed a few other events into the background.

    Possibly my favourite restaurant in town has been the “Beach Cafe”. The food is Burmese and it is run by Burmese. Or was. In January/February, the lads renovated the establishment and it was really looking good. Everything (except the power pole out the front) hit the sweet spot with me. But now, it has been closed for a month. Some say the cook left; some say there was a fire in the kitchen; same say the owner raised the rent ferociously after the renovations. One day I will find out why.

    On the Saturday following the initial riots, the Central Maritime Hotel left Dili. Normally, this would be a momentous event but it passed by with little comment.

    The Central Maritime Hotel was a floating hotel (ie a converted ship) seemingly a permanent fixture down at the waterfront. It arrived from Rangoon to provide accommodation when the UN presence was at its peak here. It had 127 rooms and bars etc. but as the UN numbers fell, so did the bottom line and it has remained unused for a couple of years now.

    It has gone off to Singapore for a minor re-fit prior to heading off to the Black Sea for oil workers accommodation. But the waterfront sure feels kind of nude now.