Posted by: rlearmonth | February 18, 2008

Coup attempts happen

February 11, 2008 will be remembered here as the day that the folk hero Alfredo Reinado was killed in an attack on President Ramos-Horta as part of an attempted coup d’etat. Another attack, led by one of Alfredo’s renegade soldiers targeted the convoy carrying Xanana Gusmao, the Prime Minister, who escaped unhurt.

My friend Nigel and I were out on our usual morning bicycle ride at about dawn on Monday, February 11. We ride along the beach road through Dili, and out to the giant statue of Christ that sits on a promontory east of Dili. Our route passes about 200 meters from Ramos-Horta’s home.

On the way out, there was a gunshot very close to us as we approached the turnoff going to the president’s house. Since we could not detect any particular danger, other than the single shot, which could have been a firecracker, we continued our ride to the end of the road at the base of the statue. On the way back we came upon two groups of young men, standing about twenty meters apart, in what appeared to be a hostile stand-off. There were two UN police vehicles between the two groups, and one or two of the police were talking to one of the groups.

Not liking the looks of this, we picked up the pace and rode through the two groups, which parted to let us pass. As we approached Dili, we heard sirens and were passed by a convoy of heavily armed UN soldiers and vehicles headed the other way, toward the incident. Thinking the convoy was headed toward the stand-off in the road, we talked about what an over-reaction it was, and how there were much more effective ways of dealing with such an issue. At that time, we had no idea that the coup attempt was underway. As we later learned, a group of renegade soldiers had staged an attack on Jose Ramor-Horta’s home. The attempt left Ramos-Horta seriously wounded, one of his guards dead and two more injured.

The plan behind the coup attempt is not easy to understand. Alfredo, the renegade leader, has sympathies among youth and the poor that has lifted him to minor folk hero status, but he has no political following to speak of. It is hard to imagine how he thought he could establish a government if his coup were sucessful. Many people quietly think he is something of a nut case, with no real agenda besides simply bringing down the government. This view is supported somewhat by his selection of Ramos-Horta as his target. Ramos-Horta is by inclination and reputation a diplomat. He was the only senior figure in government who tried to address the concerns raised by Alfredo, and had actually begun to negotiate with him. In a sense, Ramos-Horta was his only friend.

The seeds of this rebellion go back at least to the events leading up to the soldiers’ mutiny back in 2006, and some would argue even further back than that. In 2006, some disaffected soldiers complained that they were being discriminated against by the army hierarchy because they were from the western part of the Timor-Leste. They charged their officers, who generally were from the eastern part of the country, had denied them promotions, leave, and other benefits for no other reason than where they came from. The initial group of about a hundred soldiers, who came to known as “petitioners,” were soon joined by others with similar complaints and their number grew to almost 600, about a third of the army. They were led by Major Alfredo Reinado. Alfredo and his men refused to return to their barracks until their concerns were heard.

The army responded to the mutiny by sacking the rebelling soldiers. The Prime Minister at the time, Mari Alkatiri, indicated that he might have chosen another way of dealing with the crisis, but instead chose to support the army commandant and let the sacking stand. Alfredo took his men, already heavily armed, into the mountains. Since that time, Alfredo has issued demands, launched occasional raids, and threatened to take Dili by force.

The east – west issue in such a small, poor country is another difficult to understand phenomenon. During the resistance against the Indonesian occupation, the resistance fighters, led by Xanana Gusmao, launched raids from hideouts in the remote and mountainous eastern part of Timor-Leste, where they hid in caves and heavy jungle. The resistance came to be associated with the east, and some of the fighters considered those living in the west to be less than enthusiastic supporters of the movement to win freedom from Indonesia. Many westerners were accused of being collaborators. And after independence finally came in 2002 and a regular army was established, the elites were veterans of the successful resistance and, some say, disproportionately rewarded their comrades-in-arms from the east.

Immediately following the coup attempt, a state of emergency was declared. Ramo-Horta was taken to an Australian field hospital in Timor-Leste for initial treatment, and then flown to a hospital in Darwin, where he remains. The country is still under an 8:00 PM to 6:00 AM curfew.



  1. Of course, my immediate reaction is “get out of there!” though I know that is not what you will do – nor what I would do, I hope. The irony of the relationship between Ramos-Horta and Alfredo is rich…

  2. Wow! Thanks for the account and the background. Very interesting, and not what you’d be able to read in the AP.

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