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'Discontent' about Xanana Gusmao, Mari Alkatiri families: East Timor president

Melbourne Age - February 26, 2016

Tom Allard East Timor's president has compared former prime ministers Xanana Gusmao and Mari Alkatiri to the Indonesian dictator Suharto, saying there was "widespread discontent" among the public that their families were benefiting from lucrative government contracts.

The comments from Taur Matan Ruak also known as Jose Maria Vasconcelos, were made in a fiery, unscripted speech before East Timor's parliament on Thursday, where he also decried the squandering of budget funds while many Timorese lived in poverty amid poor sanitation, education and health services.

"President of the Republic had received complaints concerning privileges granted to our brothers Xanana's and Mari's family members and friends within regarding contracts signed with the State," he said.

"[There is] widespread discontent over the granting of privileges. Suharto was overthrown by his family. Too many privileges!" The Suharto family secured billions of dollars of government contracts during his graft-ridden rule.

Mr Ruak's incendiary remarks raised the stakes in his battle with the national parliament, where the parties of Mr Gusmao and Dr Alkatiri dominate in a "coalition of national unity".

Mr Ruak said this new coalition embracing all the major political parties had seen Mr Gusmao and Dr Alkatiri divide power among themselves while crushing dissent. "Brother Xanana takes care of Timor while brother Mari takes care of Oecusse," Mr Ruak said. "Those who talk against Parliament and the Government become targets. Is this the democracy we see in our country?"

Mr Gusmao was prime minister until late 2014 but is widely seen as remaining the dominant power in the new Timor government. He also remains minister for infrastructure.

Mr Gusmao's nephew Nilton Gusmao is one of East Timor's wealthiest businessmen. On Monday, he was awarded East TImor's first pay-TV licence. He also owns construction and transportation companies.

The family of Dr Alkatiri, prime minister from 2002 to 2006, has extensive business interests, including in construction.

Dr Alkatiri is currently president of the Special Administrative Region of Oecusse, the East Timor enclave surrounded by Indonesia that has been turned into a special economic zone and benefited from generous government funding. Known by its Portuguese acronym ZEESM, the Oecusse authority has wide-ranging powers including setting its own tax rates and corporate regulations.

This year ZEESM has been allocated $US218 million ($301 million), 13 per cent of the entire East TImor budget and roughly the same as recurrent spending on health and education combined.

However, Mr Ruak provided no evidence of corrupt activity by Mr Gusmao and Dr Alkatiri. Fairfax Media does not suggest the pair are corrupt.

Mr Ruak, the country's largely ceremonial head of state, is expected to run for prime minister at next year's election. He has been embroiled in a dispute with parliament after he nominated his own replacements as chief and deputy chief of East Timor's defence force.

The stand-off has sparked talk that Mr Ruak could be impeached by upset MPs, who believe parliament has the power to decide who fills the defence leadership positions. Matters are likely to come to a head next week when parliament meets to consider its position.

A former head of the armed forces himself, Mr Ruak was like Mr Gusmao a hero of the armed resistance against Indonesian occupation. Indonesia's brutal rule over the tiny state occurred during Suharto's regime and led to up to 200,000 deaths.

[This article has been updated with quotes from the official transcript released by the office of President Taur Matan Ruak.]

Source: http://www.theage.com.au/world/discontent-about-xanana-gusmao-mari-alkatiri-families-east-timor-president-20160226-gn4ck9.html.

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