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La'o Hamutuk observations on panic in Dili and divisions in Timor-Leste
March-August 2006

In reverse chronological order

In August, La'o Hamutuk circulated a call for all foreign troops in Dili to be under UN command. We also published the status of forces agreements between Timor-Leste and Australia, New Zealand, and Portugal.

LH (former) staffers Joao da Silva Sarmento and Charles Scheiner and others participated in a panel discussion in New York City on 29 June. The audio is available in three large MP3 files:

La'o Hamutuk staffer Charles Scheiner was a guest on several radio programs in the US, some of which are listenable over the internet:

On 22 June La'o Hamutuk made suggestions to the United Nations about how to prevent such crises in the future.

East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN/US) Statement on the Current Violence in Timor-Leste (27 May)

See also Action Alerts on ETAN's website.

After mid-May, events evolved rapidly, and the situation deteriorated. This website does not attempt to keep up with daily or weekly events.

East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN/US) Statement on Recent Events in Timor-Leste:
Country Fragile, International Assistance, Justice Still Needed (9 May)

Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri speaks at a concert outside the Government Palace
on the evening of 7 May 2006

Panic and Reality in Dili

From La'o Hamutuk, 6 May 2006

Dear east-timor list readers,

Few of the articles and opinions circulated on this list address the context which has caused many people to flee Dili in this week. Some people writing from far away seem almost eager to spread rumors and gossip about what is happening here, while many of us here understand that the exodus from Dili is more about post-traumatic stress and rumors than about anything real. Other institutions, including several national governments, issue statements for their own purposes, which reflect reality to varying degrees.

In fact, there has been no violence here for the last seven days, and many people travel freely around Dili with no problems.  I drove across the whole city at 9 pm Thursday night and several times since then, and all was quiet. Electricity and water are functioning normally (much better than during most of the past six years). Timor Telecom, on the other hand, is not capable of handling peak phone and SMS loads and has become dysfunctional several times, a problem which will hopefully be addressed in coming weeks.  But for last few days it has worked OK.

Most people's fears are based on their past experiences -- not just 1999 but 24 years of Indonesian military atrocities -- rather than on actual evidence or current realities. It's true that this fledgling government should have handled things better, and that several years of training by international advisors have failed to impart basic principles about rumor control, community policing, military-community relations, inappropriate display of big guns, prioritizing public concerns, and using the media to maintain calm. Nothing has been done to teach people in the wider population about post-traumatic stress. But we should realize that panic does not mean there's a rational basis for fear, especially among traumatized people with few psychological or material reserves.

Many commentaries on the current situation refer to December 4, 2002 or to 1999, two recent times when groups of violent men spread panic in Dili.  January 2, 2005 is equally relevant. On that day, a week after the tsunami in Aceh, a few people spread rumors in Dili and nearby coastal areas that a tsunami was about to strike and kill everybody. After large numbers of people fled to the mountains (disbelieving police assurances that there was no impending tsunami), many houses were robbed.

Many people sought shelter (and a trip) at the
U.S. Embassy in Dili, morning of 29 April 2006

Over the last few days, I've been interviewed by several foreign journalists who asked what was happening here and who was behind the violence. I said that I didn't know, that I have heard many rumors but haven't been able to verify them. I also told them that anyone who claimed to know and told them a juicy story probably couldn't verify their story either, and that responsible reporters would not publish unverified rumors.  Of course that makes their jobs harder and may mean they have nothing easy to write about. Long-standing social, economic, psychological and governance problems are not as sexy as conspiracies, riots and wars, even if they are more real (albeit much harder to solve).

Propagation of sensationalist rumors, especially by international media or people outside Timor-Leste, only adds to the panic. Many Timorese here have received phone calls from friends and relatives overseas, saying they heard about some massive or impending violent event on the media or by email, and are calling to see if their families are OK.  The natural reaction of some Dili residents (although some have the judgement to understand the reality) is "what do they know that I don't?" or "if it's in the foreign media it must be true," which only increases their terror. But if you ask people what they are afraid of, who they are running from, or even where they are running to, they don't know. In many cases, an hour of rational discussion has persuaded families not to flee, keeping the option open to shelter in a nearby church or school if violence begins. But in most families this discussion never happens.

In the last few days, public officials and the local media have shown a better understanding of people's perceptions and fears, and of what should be done (in addition to leaders' televised appeals for calm) to reduce the level of panic. This will hopefully continue in the following week, assuming that recent initiatives are followed through.

In the mean time, life in Dili continues peacefully, while we wait for clear facts -- and for our neighbors to return home.

Message from Survivors of the 1991 Santa Cruz Massacre regarding the current situation in Timor-Leste, Tetum (4 May)


Singers at a Peace Concert in Dili, 1 April 2006

Thousands of people enjoyed a peaceful afternoon of music and theatre

Dili has NO riots or lockdown

29 March 2006

Friends overseas interested in Timor-Leste,

I don't know where the foreign reporters are getting their "information" from , but the article below and others similar to it are sensationalistic exaggerations of the situation here in Dili. Although there has been some vandalism, there are no riots, no lockdown, and no "tight security."  Activities continue as normal, people going to work, taxis and other public transport operating as usual, people out and about in every part of the city. The few incidents of people being injured during the past week are routine for Dili and cities around the world -- drunk youths at parties, conflicting martial arts groups -- with no relation to the current controversy about the 591 people dismissed from the military.

It's true that some people are afraid, and staying in their homes more than usual. Part of this is due to fearmongering by the media, Dili's unparalleled rumor system, and the fact that the great majority of Timorese people live with post-traumatic stress from 24 years of war and occupation, capped by "black September" 1999.

A few stores are closed, some markets are receiving fewer customers than usual, but this is far from a "lockdown" or panic situation. I urge local and international journalists and international agencies who read this list to be more responsible than the coverage exemplified by the article below, which, unfortunately, is typical of recent foreign press coverage. The people of Timor-Leste have endured enough physical violence over the years -- please don't exacerbate their stress and panic at this admittedly difficult time.

Thank you.

Charlie Scheiner, La'o Hamutuk, Dili, Timor-Leste  +670-723-4335

The email above was prompted by the following article:
East Timorese capital in lockdown after weekend riot

DILI, March 28 (AFP) -- East Timor's capital was under tight security Tuesday as shops shut, public transport dwindled and some people sought refuge in a church after mobs went on a weekend rampage.

Police fanned out across the capital after the gangs -- thought to be drawn from nearly 600 recently dismissed soldiers -- ran amok Saturday night, looting shops and battling opposing groups of soldiers in several areas.

Shop owners were seen packing their goods and leaving for other districts while more than 60 people sought refuge at a church in Comoro on the outskirts of Dili, citing fears for their safety.

"We left our homes because they threatened to harm us if we stay," one of the refugees at Santa Auxilia Dora church, who refused to give his name, told AFP.

One patrolling policeman was stabbed and seriously wounded at Comoro but the attacker fled despite police firing shots, a witness who gave his name as Anthony told AFP.

Dili was tense with many students stranded and unable to sit mid-term exams.

Two people were arrested for possessing crude weapons in a security sweep led directly by Home Affairs Minister Rogerio Lobato.

Gastao Salsinha, the leader of the 591 soldiers dismissed after they deserted claiming nepotism and poor working conditions, accused police of arresting 12 of his comrades arbitrarily.

"The PNTL (East Timor police) have arrested 12 of my colleagues even though they were not involved in the riots," Salsinha, who accused those still in the military of instigating the unrest, told AFP.

"I want to assure you that until now we still have discipline and have no intention of creating instability in the country," he added.

East Timorese police commissioner Paulo Fatima Martins said only four people had been arrested, two of whom were dismissed soldiers.