The ousted prime minister welcomed me to his spacious compound where I met his son and daughter, both home from studying overseas, and his muddy, wriggling puppies that quickly Pollacked my best chinos.
The media image of Mari Alkatiri is of an unsmiling, severe and aloof man; this is far better than what most ordinary people say about him. In person, he is urbane, articulate and informal. He disarmingly opened our conversation by saying that I must have heard rumors about corruption, squirrelly oil deals, arming hit squads and the like. But it was not the time for a confession.
Alkatiri views his June 2006 resignation as a public service of sorts, saying his restraint in face of an “unconstitutional coup aimed at destroying Fretelin [the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor] and me” averted further violence. He spoke of an Australian- orchestrated media conspiracy to discredit him and spread false allegations. He suggests that his forceful negotiating position over the division of energy revenues with Australia may have soured Canberra toward him.
Alkatiri blames the Catholic Church for fomenting protests against him, in part because he is a Muslim of Yemeni origins. He says the Church was angry about his 2005 decision to end the obligatory teaching of religion at state schools.
According to Alkatiri, his opponents are not strong enough to defeat Fretelin at the polls, so they are manipulating the Church, veterans’ groups and foreign pressure while stirring up violence on the streets. He denies all the allegations against him, but blames himself for “not smiling more” — and not more effectively countering the “disinformation.”
By leaving office he feels he exposed the conspiracy and gained public sympathy. He says, “If I decided to act I would have prevailed, but it would have meant more bloodshed and everyone would have blamed me. I resigned so everyone can see for themselves who’s who and what’s what.”
Regarding his public feud with the charismatic and popular President Xanana Gusmao, Alkatiri says that he has refrained from responding to the president’s numerous attacks against Fretelin and himself, because he did not want to spark further violence.
He wonders, however, if Gusmao still thinks he made the right choice in forcing him from power by threatening to resign. In his view, the crisis has ended in defeat for the president, whose reputation has suffered. While admitting he may not have handled the military crisis well, Alkatiri points out that in any country mutineers are dealt with harshly. He says, “Xanana always favors tolerance and negotiations, but such an approach has limits.”
In reflecting on the events of 2006, he spoke of “the collective failures of the leadership,” and said that the “artificial crisis of east and west” has set the country back several years in developing democratic institutions, human rights and the rule of law.
Early in February, Alkatiri was cleared of allegations that he was involved in a transfer of weapons to a hit squad. Prior to that, when I asked him about his legal problems, he said, “I am fully aware I will win.” Echoing the consensus view, he observed without irony, “The justice system is the weakest part of our government institutions.”
In his view, the greatest threat to human rights is poverty, and addressing that should be the government’s priority. The influx of energy-export revenues, and the creation of a Timor Sea Fund to earmark money for future generations, makes him optimistic about prospects in East Timor.
Regarding Japan, Alkatiri expressed thanks for their generous assistance but said, “They are not easy to work with. They have their own ideas and program and it is difficult to negotiate with them. They have been very supportive of infrastructure, power and health projects, but these are always expensive.”
Looking forward, he said, “Xanana and I have to work together to create the conditions for peaceful elections. Both need to recognize our mistakes. I have kept a low profile and have not been critical of Xanana because I want to calm things down and have asked Fretelin for tolerance.”
Confessing that it would be hard to resist pressures from within his party, Fretelin, to run for re-election, he signaled his readiness, “For my own dignity and vindication.”
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