Dr Anna Powles is a Senior Lecturer in Security Studies at Massey University. Jose KL Sousa Santos served as an advisor to the Timorese President and Government and was a security analyst with the UN Integrated Mission to Timor Leste.

The standoff between Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao and ex-guerilla Commander Paulino Gama (known by his nom de guerre, Mauk Moruk) has captured national attention and reflects a wider struggle between resistance legacies and modern government in Timor Leste.

Mauk Moruk, speaking at the National University of Timor Leste in October, called for Timorese intellectuals to join an anti-poverty ‘revolution’ to improve the lives of Timorese and bring down the Gusmao Government.

This is not the first time Mauk Moruk has challenged Gusmao. In 1984 Mauk Moruk was one of four senior officers in the Falintil resistance army who led a coup against Gusmao, then Falintil Commander. The coup failed and Mauk Moruk surrendered to the Indonesians. He recently returned to Timor Leste from The Netherlands and established the Revolutionary Council (KR), a paramilitary organisation seeking grassroots (or maubere) appeal.

KR has serious backing. Mauk Moruk’s brother is former Falintil commander and ex-parliamentarian Cornelio Gama (known as L-7), who in the 1990s established the animist clandestine group Sagrada Familia. He has also led the minor political party UNDERTIM (the National Democratic Union of Timorese Resistance) since its creation in 2005. Mauk Moruk has publicly linked the Revolutionary Council and Sagrada Familia by calling for Timorese intellectuals to join with Sagrada Familia.

Mauk Moruk is tapping into an increasingly popular theme of discontent. It is almost a year since the UN Integrated Mission to Timor Leste closed its doors and proclaimed success, yet for the majority of Timorese, the reality of everyday life and politics lack the shine of the capital’s new plaza, cinema and sidewalks.

Dig beneath Dili’s façade and there are communities without adequate housing, access to electricity or clean drinking water. There are children washing in faeces-filled drains minutes from the Nicolau Lobato International Airport; women and girls are increasingly victims of sexual attacks and domestic violence; and there is a growing – and increasingly criminalised – youth militancy borne out of boredom, lack of opportunity and the pyscho-social impact of violence and endemic insecurity.  And that’s just Dili. The international community (and the Timorese Government) consistently falls victim to the Dili-centric lens. To judge Timor’s progress by Dili standards is to ignore 77% of the population.

For the majority of Timorese, there have been few benefits from the anticipated economic dividends of independence and the petroleum fund.

The 2010 Timor Leste Demographic and Health Survey found that 88% of Timor’s poor rely on subsistence agriculture, and the 2009 Global Hunger Index ranked Timor Leste 70th out of 84 countries and put it in the ‘alarming’ category. The urban-rural divide worsened as a consequence of the 2006 crisis which led to the internal displacement of 150,000 people, predominantly to Dili. The twin issues of urban displacement and land ownership have been compounded by uneven development, state acquisition of land, rural food insecurity and lack of access to infrastructure, health care, education and employment.

How successful Mauk Moruk and his Revolutionary Council will be in gaining populist currency remains unclear. Recent photos show Revolutionary Council members marching in military uniforms around a field in the eastern district of Baucau, directly contravening the Government’s ban on non-military personnel wearing military uniforms. These provocations have caused public concern. Timorese are weary of conflict and wary of spoilers, suggesting that Mauk Moruk’s strategy is to target the exploitable and increasingly disenfranchised youth demographic. The ban on martial arts groups with a clandestine legacy and involvement in the 2006 violence has created a void that Mauk Moruk wants to fill.

So far, Mauk Moruk’s rhetoric has been just rhetoric. The Revolutionary Council demonstration on Independence Day in Dili on 28 November calling for the dissolution of parliament, early elections and the formation of a government of national unity never took place and Mauk Moruk has failed to attend requested dialogues with Gusmao. Mauk Moruk has also claimed he is mobilising groups to hold a rally against Australia and the current Certain Maritime Arrangement on the Timor Sea case due for arbitration before the Hague, however no permit has yet been sought from the police as required under the law.

Gusmao, however, is not taking Mauk Moruk lightly. The Prime Minister has responded by calling on all thirteen district administrators across the country to remain vigilant and has ordered the national police to establish checkpoints throughout the country to identify Revolutionary Council members and hinder their movement.

The standoff between Gusmao and Mauk Moruk reflects a potentially dangerous schism between two groups: on the one hand, Gusmao, the former clandestine groups allied to him and the national police; and on the other hand, the Gama brothers, Sagrada Familia, and the national military whose Chief, General Lere Anan, publicly stated his support and membership of Sagrada Familia during the resistance struggle.

The politicisation of the state’s security institutions for the purposes of contesting political and resistance legacies is remarkably familiar. Contemporary politics in Timor Leste is a network of legacies and loyalties and the international community does the Timorese a disservice if it is seduced by the new buildings, bright lights and distinctly Southeast Asian traffic jams of Dili. Beneath the veneer lies a turbulent and unresolved history.

Photo by REUTERS/Edgar Su.