East Timor: priests threatened with execution

East Timor: priests threatened with execution

Peter Westmore

As East Timor, a country of around one million people, situated just a few hundred kilometres from Darwin, prepares for its first election since its independence (in 2002), priests who have urged people to exercise their democratic rights have been threatened with execution. The threats seem to be an act of desperation by a party which has been plagued by reports of corruption and lack of development.

The death threats are understood to have been conveyed to a number of priests, and are therefore seen as evidence of the same co-ordinated campaign of threats and intimidation that led the United Nations to send international peace-keepers to East Timor last year.

The situation is causing deep concern in this overwhelmingly Catholic country which has been run by the Marxist-oriented Fretilin Government since independence. The Church remains the major provider of local support for the people in a country with virtually no social services and a crumbling public infrastructure. The main roads are corrugated and eroded, electricity is less widely available than it was years ago, and the public health situation is deplorable.

On the other hand, the Church provides medical clinics, schools, orphanages and other facilities throughout the country. In 2005, attempts by the Government to prevent the teaching of Christianity in schools resulted in widespread protests in the streets.

Indeed the attachment of the Timorese people to the Church is very deep. During the 24 years of Indonesian occupation, the Church non-violently stood between the people and the Indonesian army, while Fretilin conducted an armed resistance in the mountainous interior.

The Church has also been the protector of Timorese identity and culture. Even during the Indonesian occupation, the local language, Tetum, was the principal liturgical language, not just for the Scripture readings, but for the entire Mass.

East Timor ultimately won its independence when Indonesia conducted a plebiscite in 1999, on whether East Timor should become an autonomous province within Indonesia, or become independent. The overwhelming majority opted for independence.

Subsequent militia violence, backed by Indonesia, led to the United Nations authorising an international peace-keeping force, led by Australia. However, most government buildings and much of the country's infrastructure were subsequently destroyed by the departing Indonesians.

The country was administered by the UN until independence was achieved less than three years later. Tragically, little was improved during the years of UN administration between 1999 and 2002, and much of what was there has deteriorated.

Fretilin won a majority of positions in a plebiscite held in 2001 to elect a Constitutional Assembly to draft a new constitution. Then it used its majority to defer elections for five years.

Civil war

In April 2006, East Timor descended into a state of virtual civil war, after it was revealed that a death squad, organised by Interior Minister, Rogerio Lobarto, had been formed to assassinate and intimidate Fretilin's rivals.

There was fighting between rival army units, and between the army and police with a number of unarmed police being shot dead in cold blood. Street warfare broke out in the capital, Dili, and tens of thousands of people were forced from their homes.

As a result of the crisis, the President, Xanana Gusmao, forced the country's Marxist Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri, to resign. He was replaced by the former Foreign Minister, Jose Ramos-Horta; but Alkatiri remains a member of Parliament, as well as Secretary-General of Fretilin.

However, the Ministry remains dominated by Fretilin members, and Alkatiri has vowed to work to win control of the next Parliament in elections to be held later this year.

Despite the presence of international peace-keepers (including 1,000 Australian troops, as well as a substantial contingent from New Zealand and Portugal) since mid- 2006, at least 15,000 people in Dili are still living in tents because their homes were destroyed and have not been rebuilt, or because it is not safe for them to return to their homes.

The security situation is such that the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs continues to warn Australians against travelling to East Timor.

In the meantime, there is every reason to believe the threats against Timorese priests will strengthen the resolve of both the clergy and people to resist attempts to prevent the exercise of democracy in their country.

The mood seems to be that just as the people resisted Indonesian intimidation in 1999 and voted for independence, they will reject the latest attempts to overturn the country's hard-won but fragile democracy. There are a number of pro- democracy parties, each of which has a natural base of support.

At a time when Catholics are leading the fight for the preservation of democracy in East Timor, it is important that the existing international presence is maintained at least until the elections are held later this year.

The death threats against priests is a clear sign that Fretilin will try almost anything to win the 2007 elections. It is critically important that the international community, particularly Australia and New Zealand, stand behind the East Timorese in this latest crisis to engulf the infant nation.

If the current threats can be overcome, there is a good chance that a government more closely attuned to the aspirations of the people, and willing to co-operate with the Church, will be elected to office. The sacrifices which continue to be made by many thousands of East Timorese will then be vindicated.

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