East Timor: Dark Days in Dili

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Herminio de Oliveira was enjoying a beer at his tiny drinks and cigarette stall near Dili airport when he heard the yelling from the nearby refugee camp. "Fretilin will govern! Fretilin will govern!" came the chant, as scores of youths, supporters of the former ruling party, poured out of the gates and onto the road in the East Timorese capital's western suburbs. "I was frightened," says de Oliveira. "Then a car came, and the youths hit it with many stones." At the wheel was João Carrascalão, whose brother Mario leads the Social Democratic Party (PSD). "They broke his glasses and they injured his wife," says de Oliveira. "I was worried they would start attacking anybody who is not Fretilin, worried they might attack me. My shop is all I have. If they destroy that, I will lose everything."

De Oliveira is one of thousands of East Timorese who have spent the past few weeks anxiously awaiting the announcement of the country's new Prime Minister. While Dili residents are enthusiastic about a new government, many are concerned about politically driven violence on the scale seen in April and May last year, when 37 people were killed and more than 150,000 fled their homes. "I hope they can control it," says de Oliveira.

On Monday, President Jose Ramos-Horta announced the appointment as Prime Minister of former resistance fighter Xanana Gusmão, who leads a coalition made up of his own party, the National Congress for the Reconstruction of East Timor (CNRT), the Timorese Social Democratic Association (ASDT), Carrascalão's PSD and the Democratic Party (PD). The coalition holds 37 seats, giving it a substantial majority over Fretilin, which won 21 seats in the June 30 elections.

Fretilin's leaders argue that with more seats than any other party, they should govern. Ramos-Horta has postponed his decision twice and urged the coalition to include Fretilin representatives for the sake of national stability. But they refuse to do so, and the delay has only increased tensions in the capital. As it appears less likely that Fretilin will have any role in the new government, it is feared that the party's supporters may try to use violence to destabilize the country. Immediately after Ramos-Horta's announcement, violence broke out in the capital of Dili; later that evening angry pro-Fretilin protesters set fire to Dili's customs house as Australian peacekeeping troops moved to restore order.

Says Dr. Christopher Samson, who heads a Dili-based anti-corruption NGO: "There will be those people who are uneducated who will try to take the law into their own hands. They want to threaten the nation and its stability. But I believe it will not be large, because the majority of the people will not support it." Samson regularly receives death threats for his work fighting corruption. "If there are some civilians with weapons, then that will lead to loss of life," he says.

One source of tension comes from the large numbers of Fretilin-supporting easterners who have taken up residence in refugee camps in the capital. On Sunday, young men from one inner-city refugee camp blocked the road outside Dili's new Hotel Timor, where party leaders regularly hold meetings. Chanting "Fretilin! Fretilin!" they climbed trees and hoisted a red-and-white banner across the road. The banner featured a snake and a cross, with the slogan, in the local Tetum language: "Timor needs a prime minister who is intelligent, not someone who is like big brother." Many of the youths appeared to be drunk, and were urged on by agitators in the crowd.

Fretilin spokesman and former minister Jose Texeira believes the announcement could spark minor trouble but says, "There is no way there is any campaign for any organized violence. We are actively involved in ensuring that people accept the decision." But last week the party's secretary-general, former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, made a clear link between the stability of the country and Fretilin's having a role in the ruling coalition. "Fretilin firmly believes that a government of grand inclusion, which includes members of all political parties which have seats in the national parliament, will bring stability to the country," he told journalists. "If there is no stability, then no government will be able to function effectively."

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