Concerning the Vera Cruz Incident

Response to Michael Rose’s article

The Sydney Morning Herald published an opinion piece written by ANU Academic Michael Rose on 14 April 2021 with the sensationalist lead that the Timorese icon, Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão was putting the lives of his people at risk []. Rose is said to be an expert in labour mobility, decoded that means he works as the recipient of a grant from the Department of Foreign Affairs, to help justify the bringing of Timorese unemployed to Australia to work in conditions that have been widely criticised. This and a book on the anthropology of the Oecusse enclave is his academic area of expertise. He has told the writer on many occasions that he does not follow, nor understand, what he refers in his article as ‘East Timor’s labyrinthine politics’. But nevertheless, the SMH gave him space to put forward a series of misrepresentations as fact to its readers.

In short there is nothing in the article, nor in the actions of Xanana Gusmão referred to in the article that supports Rose’s quite possibly defamatory conclusions. In fact, if anything, quite the opposite is true. Let’s consider Rose’s assertions in the light of what actually occurred in Dili between 12 and 15 April.

Firstly, he tells us that Xanana had took ‘it upon himself to demand the body of their deceased kin be released from the morgue’. This is incorrect and misleading for two simple reasons. Firstly, the deceased, Armindo Borges was a member of Xanana’s family. The deceased immediate kin came to Xanana and requested his personal assistance to resolve the dispute concerning the manner in which the funeral could be carried out. Xanana took nothing upon himself, but as a senior member of the family, was asked to assist. Even a young anthropologist such as Rose should be well aware of the fact that fact, given his position in the family, it is Xanana’s duty to assist resolve the dispute. Nevertheless, Rose tries to paint a picture of a tyrannical dictator running around the country pulling self serving political stunts; of which this is the latest and the most ‘extreme’.

Rose than asserts that this extreme demand was ‘in a flagrant violation of his country’s public health measures’. It is upon this claim that the SMH and Rose base their wild assertion that Xanana has put the lives of his people at risk. Rose of course does not tell us, and more than likely has no idea what the detail of these health measures are, but to be clear there is no law in Timor-Leste that mandates that Covid related funerals must be carried out in designated cemeteries. Nor is there anything in the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines that demand burials in separate cemeteries without the attendance of the family. In fact, if Rose had done even a moment’s research he would have discovered that no country in the world requires burial in separate cemeteries. The only places where designated Covid cemeteries have been created is where the death toll is so high that there is no room in existing cemeteries to cater for the dead.

Armindo Borges is Timor’s second Covid related death. On the day the SMH published Rose’s opinion Dr Rui Araujo (a medical doctor) former Prime Minister and the head of the country’s Covid Integrated Centre for Crisis Management (CIGC) admitted to the Portuguese news agency Lusa, that the authorities ‘had “exaggerated” the rules applied during the funeral of the first person to die with Covid-19 in Timor-Leste, having adapted the protocol to be applied in new cases in the country. “I acknowledge that there was an excess in the first funeral. Like the use of a bulldozer to place the coffin. The health authorities recognise that this was excessive,” “It was the first case and at that moment everyone got in the way. Before, training was given, we did simulation, but when you face a first case, people got more fumbled and on the ground certain decisions were taken,” he acknowledged. The intention is to apply changes, respecting traditions and customs and we were prepared to apply this in this second case, but as there was this disagreement, now the competent authorities will have to make the decision”, he considered.

Dr Araujo’s comments are telling. He recognised the error in the first case, he states that the competent authorities – that is the Government need to make a decision – and he states the intention to make it clear that in the future customs and tradition should be respected.

At the beginning of the Covid crisis Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben wrote of two issues that he believed would come to the fore as the response to the virus spread. Agamben forewarned of the danger of Government’s using emergency rules to maintain illegitimate political power and of the dehumanising manner in which the dead might be treated. Both of these concerns are at play in Timor-Leste. A Constitutionally required election was avoided by a President who actively lobbied against Xanana Gusmão forming a Government. In Australia this would be akin to the Governor-General playing a partisan and forbidden role in who he decided to appoint as Prime Minister.

In a country that actively reveres and worships it’s ancestors as sacred it was the dehumanising lack of respect for customs and traditions that was at issue in the case of Armindo Borges. This was all that the family, through their spokesperson Xanana Gusmão, desired. It was made clear to the country, with the visit of the UN representative to Timor, Roy Triveddy on 14 April, that the UN and the WHO also believed that custom and tradition should be respected whilst of course, as desired by Xanana, social distancing and other precautions where to be observed.

How one must ask Dr Rose is a request that is perfectly consistent with the WHO guidelines putting the lives of the people at risk?

In an apparent attempt to further sensationalise the issue Rose then turns his attention to an incident that occurred at the very beginning of the dispute on 12 April. Here again Rose seeks to paint the picture of the tyrannical dictator senselessly and arbitrarily meting out violence to his population when they dare to speak. Rose ho has an adequate grasp of the Tetun language decides to overlook the substance of this incident in order to portray Xanana in the worst light possible. Rose, of course, does not tell us that the female relative of the deceased is a member of Xanana’s family but that Xanana ‘took exception to their speaking – repeatedly bellowing “nonok” (shut up!) and slapping them, one with significant force.’ Putting aside the exaggeration of ‘significant force’ let’s put the incident in its proper context.

Since the morning of Easter Sunday Xanana, like his fellow leader, Jose Ramos-Horta, had been out on the streets delivering food and supplies to flood victims in a a devastated and destroyed city. During those days the Government was all but absent and it was the actions of Horta, Xanana and the countless efforts of local village leaders, the Catholic Church and NGOs that gave the people hope that they were not completely alone. Horta and Xanana were up each day before the sun rose delivering supplies and calming the population. On one occasion, two days after the flood, The prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak was booed and jeered by people over what they saw was government inaction and its inability of the to come to their aid. Throughout that week Horta and Xanana worked alongside the people. In Tasi Tolu were thousands had been displaced from their flooded homes Xanana organised to have water pumped from the area into the sea so that people could access their homes to begin to rebuild. By the end of the week, they like everyone else, involved were exhausted.

Then Armindo Borges, who had been ill for quite some time, died. The family were distressed. Armindo on top of his longstanding medical condition had tested positive for Covid after he had been taken by a medical team. The distressed family believed that he had died of his disease, but he was now designated as the country’s second Covid death. They approached Xanana who counselled them on the seriousness of Covid but too expressed concern about the actual cause of death. It was when he was taken into isolation that he had died. Legal experts in Timor have since suggested that more care needs to be taken in adequately reporting of the cause of death in Covid cases.

On Monday 12 April, when the family, with Xanana went to request information about the procedure for burial, the distressed family members began to scream insults at the health authorities and expressed the belief that Covid was not a real disease, that the health authorities had lied over the cause of the death and that they, the authorities were in fact were responsible for the death. Outside the isolation centre in Vera Cruz, Dili, Xanana sought to calm his family, he defended the integrity of the health authorities, the importance to fight Covid and he defended the lock down and other government’s measures.

Xanana has been clear and was clear to his family that he didn’t want to foster misinformation about Covid that might create further tension and problems. He wanted people to be calm and deal with the issue at hand – how to observe custom whilst observing necessary protocols. After appealing to his family to be quiet, to stop screaming and abusing others and to calm down, after a week’s tireless effort in the flood response, after losing a family member, he simply lost his temper. His so called ‘slap of significant force’ (which it was not) was to calm a grieving relative.

People concerned with this act of so called violence need to put it in context. Crowds then formed near the isolation centre and the whole country became focused upon the drama, in support of the family and Xanana. The only dissidents were those associated with what is seen as an increasingly distant and failed Government. One of whom, a Fretilin member of Parliament, was interviewed by RTTL, the national TV Broadcaster, stating that the police should secure Xanana and shoot any of the people on the street.

Rose manipulates the ‘slap’ incident, not only in its details but also in the actual order of events. He continues in his opinion to inform SMH readers that a ‘procession of Timorese officials, including the chief of the defence force … visited [Xanana] to try and talk sense into him … The officials told him that, unfortunately, due to Covid restrictions, this was impossible. … In response, he not only argued with and slapped two of the mourners but parked himself outside’.

What actually happened next is again quite different. Xanana and the family decided to maintain a vigil outside the isolation centre. As a result various officials including the Health Minister and representatives of the CIGC came to speak with him. A crowd of supporters started to form at the end of the street. Rather than as Rose asserts ‘ leaving the police to deal with an increasingly rowdy and agitated crowd of young fans’ Xanana constantly asked the crowd to calm down. He explained the situation to them. At one point he asked them to disperse and go home. But the crowds grew. Supporters, including priests and veterans of the resistance, came to sit with him. The country sat glued to the television and to social media to watch the videos being streamed from outside the isolation centre.

The dead – our dead – have the right to a funeral. We must be clear as to what will happen to the bodies of our loved ones. … If we do not respect our dead what is the value of our society?
Avelino Coelho, Timorese Socialist party leader

During that first day the head of the National Defence Institute and senior member of the CIGC, Commander Pedro Klamar Fuik and others negotiated a solution that satisfied the family. WHO protocols were to be observed and the funeral could proceed according to tradition on that basis. It appeared that on late Monday afternoon the matter was resolved. The country gave a collective sigh of relief.

But then, as night fell, word spread that the Government had overruled the CIGC and would not permit the agreement to be honoured. What was at stake here goes well beyond the Covid guidelines and goes to the heart of the political and constitutional crisis that has damaged Timor since 2017. In response to the overruling of the agreement Xanana commenced a vigil sleeping on the ground outside the isolation centre. All over the Government had just further increased its distance from the population.

Xanana stayed there for three nights. On Wednesday night, after using their power to overrule the agreement reached on Monday, the Government, in a desperate but failed attempt to save face, Pilates-like washed their hands of the matter and denied it was their responsibility to resolve. The Government spokesperson Fidelis Leite Magalhães said that they would kick the ball back to the CIGC to deal with. The Government was fully aware that it was in a lose-lose situation.

Immediately, the CIGC team reactivated their negotiations and it soon became apparent that Thursday would bring us back to where we were on Monday, with an agreement in accordance with Covid protocols.

By Thursday afternoon the Funeral went ahead. Crowds formed along the five or six kilometres from the isolation centre to the cemetery. They cheered one man, and one man only.

What has been at stake this last week in Timor is more than one funeral, it was the immediate event that mobilised a people, but behind it are the frustrations that have accumulated over the past year or more. Timor had its first Covid community transmission in early 2021 but has been in a State of Emergency since the Constitutional crisis came to a head in early 2020. The subsequent perceived illegitimacy of the Government, its inability to make decsions, its austerity, the 12 months of States of Emergency, the tardy Government responses to last year’s and this year’s floods, the tardy responses to resolve the increasing scarcity of food brought about by the Emergency all are mounting up. Government appears more and more aloof and distant everyday. Only two weeks ago a woman committed suicide in Dili faced with the inability to obtain food for her family as a result of the lock down of the city. One prominent member of the Government, Mericio Akara, a former human rights activist, told the country that despite media interviews with neighbours and family the woman’s suicide was a hoax.

Highly respected former Minister for State Agio Pereira posted a message on social media that night that gives this event its full meaning for the Timorese people.

‘Maun-Bo’ot Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão appealed to everyone not to clap because it is not a matter of winning or losing. The People know that it is a great victory in the struggle for their basic dignity, their tradition and customs.
It is a singular and correct victory. It is not a victory of Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão because KRXG is the Maubere People. Similar to what happened in 1999, the victory of an entire People.
In the current political situation of abuse and embezzlement of political power and unprecedented political opportunism for purely personal and political purposes, it is opportune and dignified to wake up all those who, in fact, care about the future of the Nation and the lives of all, the memory of the fallen heroes and so that everyone can do their best to serve the free and sovereign homeland. However, the fallen heroes’ dream that everyone will serve with capacity and honesty has entered an eclipse.
Once again it is Maun Xanana Gusmão to shake the conscience of those who stayed on the top of the moon and forgot that the people are not utopia or myth.’

Martin Hardie
Aileu, Timor-Leste

This article was first published on Watugari-Coelho Consultants website.

Published by Celso Da Fonseca

I'm just a dreamer who enjoys my freedom. Freethinker, free writer, and free dream.

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