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Resistance leaders' sway still strong in Timor

Radio New Zealand International - December 21, 2017

Sally Round Timor Leste could face another election next year after the new government suffered a defeat in parliament on Tuesday.

Among the factors at play, according to observers, are the old rivalries between leaders of the resistance to the 24-year Indonesian occupation which ended in 1999.

Fifteen years after Timor Leste proclaimed independence in 2002 the old guard continues to play a major part in present day politics.

Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri's Fretilin party narrowly won the July 2017 legislative election but his minority government has been unable to pass a budget or programme for the coming term in the face of strong opposition from an alliance of parties led by the charismatic Xanana Gusmao and another former guerilla leader, Taur Matan Ruak.

The president of the Republic, Francisco "Lu Olo" Guterres, who has the power to call an election, is also a former guerilla fighter and Fretilin politician.

As well as influential, the old guard is fragmented. The "Government of National Inclusion" which ruled in the previous term has fractured and, according to Timorese journalist Raimundos Oki, long-standing rivalries have come even more to the fore.

"That's why Mari Alkatiri is not able to set up the government because the current prime minister... he was overseas for 24 years but Xanana and Taur Matan Ruak, they (were) in the bush, using guns and fighting against the Indonesians for 24 years."

Mr Alkatiri, also a member of the so-called Generation of '75, spent several decades living in exile in Mozambique during the struggle for independence.

Raimundos Oki said while resistance leaders employed the same clandestine tactics they used in the jungle, the Timorese have remained calm.

"Politically, there is tension at the high level... but the local people, they are very smart. They let the politicians fight one another, but importantly for us, we do not fight each other."

According to the chief whip in Taur Matan Ruak's PLP, Fidelis Magalhaes, the former fighters were abiding by the rules which was helping solidify Timore Leste's young democracy.

"They carry with them not only strong historical credentials, but they have been tested in the field and people know that they can trust the resistance leaders because they've proven themselves to the people," he said.

He said their camaraderie remained strong and it was good for the country. "We cannot simply just ignore resistance leaders by saying that their presence is no longer useful for the country.

The younger politician, Fidelis Magalhaes, sees their presence in parliament as a great opportunity.

"This is one perhaps of few opportunities we have to engage them in politics, now, while they are still around and we are in no hurry to replace them or to substitute them but we see it as as an opportunity where we can learn and we can begin to show to the people that there are alternatives in the long-run and I think the leaders of Timor-Leste provide that space for us."

A researcher with the think tank La'o Humutuk, Juvinal Diaz, surmised that the old guard had five years to free Timorese from poverty before they risked falling from power.

"Some leaders were very revolutionary but today they are very pragmatic. Some people were very honest but today, because of the power they change... to be opportunistic," said Mr Diaz.

[Sally Round travelled to Timor-Leste as winner of the VSA Excellence in Journalism Award.]

Source: https://www.radionz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/346702/resistance-leaders-sway-still-strong-in-timor.

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