The shooting of East Timor President Jose Ramos Horta yesterday may prove to be a blessing in disguise. Although the president is in a serious condition, it appears that he will recover, if perhaps not be up to the daily jogs along the beach that he was undertaking when he was shot at dawn yesterday.

The main advantage is that fugitive soldier Alfredo Reinado is now out of the picture, killed in the return of gunfire at the president’s beach-front home.

Reinado stood as a beacon to disaffected westerners who had been alienated by the previous Alkatiri government. But with the election of Ramos-Horta, and the coalition government of Xanana Gusmao, last year, this previously disenfranchised group had a voice.

As a result, Reinado had become redundant.

However, as an armed outlaw in the mountains, Reinado stood as the new government’s number one problem. No matter how the government handled it — through negotiations or force — the problem he presented would have negative consequences.

However, by taking the initiative, Reinado has not only removed himself from the political equation, he has done so in a way that reduces his former support base while enhancing the status of the already popular president — elected by exactly those people who also supported Reinado — and re-legitimising the government.

The government had been in regular dialogue with Reinado in a bid to have him surrender peacefully, with the last discussion being held with government members near the town of Ermera late last week.

However, Reinado continued to insist on conditions for his surrender — that only particular charges be heard, the the court be constituted according to his preferences, that others also be charged and with what — with which the government was unable to comply.

Knowing his chances of getting such a deal were decreasing, and perhaps hearing of the government’s plan to dismantle his support base and hence isolate him, Reinado chose to act first.

A state of emergency and the robust profile of the Australian-led International Stabilisation Force has so far ensured that the streets of Dili have remained relatively calm. Had the ISF not been there, the place would already be in flames.

So, sending more Australian troops is a back-up security matter, and the right response from the Australian government.

There will be tensions, no doubt, over the next few days. But the way is now open for the East Timorese government to move forward, having its most seriously security issue now behind it.

The welcome sense of normality that had pervaded East Timor in recent months will be able to return, and the rebuilding of the shattered society resume.

Peter Fray

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