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East Timor Marks Independence; Prime Minister's Leadership Tested by Violence

On the eve of its fourth independence anniversary, East Timor is facing political turmoil. A recent outbreak of violence among former military officers has exposed the fragility of the world's youngest democracy and is testing the leadership of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri.

Calm has returned to the capital, Dili, after a deadly riot on April 28 by hundreds of disgruntled former soldiers shook the city. The riot killed five people and prompted thousands of frightened residents to flee.

The nearly 600 soldiers - or a third of the country's defense forces - left their barracks in February complaining of discrimination in the armed forces. They allege soldiers from the east - where most of East Timor's independence fighters were from - get preferential treatment.

The soldiers were dismissed and staged protests for weeks in Dili. A government commission was about to investigate the complaints when the violence erupted.

It was the worst unrest in East Timor since the bloodshed surrounding its vote for independence from Indonesia in 1999.

The incident has highlighted the immaturity of the country's democratic institutions and called into question the leadership of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri.

Analysts - like expert Damian Grenfell of RMIT University in Australia - say East Timor, with just four years of independence, is still experiencing some growing pains.

"We're talking about a very, very fragile society - both economically not well off and also socially - suffering enormously from its past that to try to build a new state and to do so very quickly, of course, there's going to be problems along the way," he said.

East Timor is the poorest country in Southeast Asia, although it has substantial gas reserves. Unemployment is high and poverty widespread. The country relies heavily on foreign aid and on United Nations peacekeeping forces for its defense.

Political analysts say some people are frustrated with slow economic development. Government spokesman, Jose Guiterrez, says frustrations stem from people's high expectations, but he says violent riots - like the ex-soldiers staged - are not the way to solve them.

"When Timor became independent many people thought all their problems were solved with a magic touch," he said. "But things are not like this. The people in Timor have to know that there are institutions and everything must be solved in the institutions. Of course, the institutions are still weak, we need to consolidate the institutions."

Critics of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri say he mishandled the soldiers' complaints and that he is out of touch with the people.

A plan to unseat him as head of Fretilin, during the party's congress Friday May 19, collapsed when the forum opted for an open vote on his leadership instead of a secret ballot. Most Fretilin members work for the government.

Fretilin is the dominant political force in East Timor, holding 55 of the 88-seat parliament. With national elections scheduled next year, political analysts say Fretilin needs to shore up public support.

Professor Grenfell says how Fretilin deals with potentially destabilizing issues - like the soldiers' mutiny - would set the tone for the outcome of next year's polls.

"You could certainly think that some of what we are seeing today is the beginnings of those elections in some respect," he said.

With the soldiers' issue still unresolved, the government is sensing the potential for instability ahead of the elections. The foreign minister has urged the United Nations to extend its peacekeeping mission, which expires this month. Neighboring Australia - which led the international peacekeeping mission in 1999 - says it is ready to send troops if requested.