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Police in East Timor Put Down Demonstration by Ex-Guerrilla Fighters - 2004-07-20


Police in Southeast Asia's newest state, East Timor, used tear gas to break up a demonstration by former members of the guerrilla movement that helped liberate the region from Indonesian rule in 1999. Some East Timorese are unhappy with the way the country has developed since independence.

For almost 25 years, the fighters of the Falintil movement were a driving force for independence. For many people it was a dream come true when the tiny nation won its freedom from Indonesian rule after a U.N.-organized referendum in 1999.

But for some former guerrilla fighters, the dream has soured. Monday, about 100 people demanding reforms gathered outside the main government building in the capital, Dili. They stayed through the night, and early Tuesday police used tear gas to break up the demonstration. More than 20 people were arrested.

The protesters carried banners demanding greater democracy and reform of the police force. Many ex-guerrilla fighters have protested in the past, saying they feel left out of the development of the country they fought to liberate.

Observers say frustrations are fed partly by unrealistic expectations among many East Timorese, but they also say the reform process has been slow.

Up to 80 percent of East Timor's working-age population is unemployed and more than half the population lives on less than 55 cents a day.

A university lecturer in Dili, Jaoquim Fonseca, explains why many people are unhappy with the administration of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri.

"That is the inflexibility of the current government," he said. "Inflexibility in that they do not want to take people's ideas on board. The government of Alkatiri, for instance, is reluctant in doing anything about allegations of misuse of power, corruption and all these things in the government."

East Timor has large offshore reserves of gas, and with a population of only 800,000 could potentially be rich. But observers say it will take some time for those potential revenues to be realized, raising concerns that the gap between people's expectations and reality could lead to more strife.

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