East versus West

TIMOR LESTE’S political and subsequent security crisis in 2006 began when a group of soldiers from the country’s west, reportedly numbering up to 591 at that time, signed a petition alleging discrimination inside the Timor Leste military (known by its Portuguese acronym FDTL). The group claimed that soldiers from the eastern part of the country were being favored over those from the western section with regard to promotions. These protesting western soldiers refused to comply with the military directorate’s order to return to their post. They were then dismissed.

On April 28, 2006, the soldier-petitioners and their civilian supporters held what was meant to be a peaceful protest. But it soon spiraled into widespread violence when the dismissed soldiers attacked a market run mostly by lorosa’e — Tetum for “easterner.” The protests continued over the next several days, until the former soldiers clashed with standing forces of the FDTL. In the riot that ensued, at least 25 people were killed and 130,000 people fled their homes from the capital, Dili. Rebel army leader Major Alfredo Reinado then took to the mountains with another group of soldiers, demanding the resignation of then Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri.

On June 22, 2006, East Timor’s then president, the charismatic and respected former resistance leader Xanana Gusmão, delivered an ultimatum on national television, saying that he would resign the following day if Alkatiri did not give up the premiership. Gusmao was apparently persuaded to stay a while longer, however, even as ministers — among them then Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta — also stepped up to profess their own intention to resign. On June 26, Prime Minister Alkatiri finally announced his resignation, sparking celebrations on the streets of Dili.

POST staff reporter Domingos Freitas shows where he sustained injuries from the savage beating he got right in front of the paper’s office. [photo by Joseph Laban]

By then, though, several journalists already had their homes reduced to ashes, and newspapers forced to temporarily cease operations after receiving several threats. Before Timor Post business manager Domingos Freitas was pummeled and kicked by his attackers on June 13, 2006, he was also asked first, “Are you from Iraq or from America?”

“Iraq” was actually a reference to the three eastern districts of Timor Leste: Lautem, Viqueque, and Baucau. “America” is the collective term for the country’s 10 western districts of Manatuto, Manufahi, Ainaro, Cova Lima, Bobonaro, Ermera, Aileu, Dili, Liquica, and the Oecussi enclave.
When Freitas failed to give a reply, the eight men surrounding him let it rip. Post employee Duarte Quintao tried to come to Freitas’s aid, but he, too, was beaten up, with a sharp stone cutting his right temple.

Freitas says that more men came and took turns hitting him. To this day he hears them crying out for his blood and shouting, “We will kill all the people of Iraq! Timor Leste belongs only to America!”

That violent attack, however, led to widespread criticism of the Alkatiri government that was aired by the members of the media in the international community.

Reporters Without Borders was among the organizations that strongly condemned the assault. Its official statement read in part: “We deplore this violence, which is obstructing the work of the press, and we call on the UN mission charged with investigating the recent violence to include attacks on the press in its enquiries.”

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