Is Mari Alkatiri Southeast Asia's Donald Trump?

Facebook posts reveal Timor-Leste's caretaker prime minister is under enormous pressure
Is Mari Alkatiri Southeast Asia's Donald Trump?

Timor-Leste's caretaker Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri (surrounded by press) has said he will sue anyone who continued to 'insult' him on Facebook. (Photo by Valentino Dariell Sousa)

As Timor-Leste's minority government lost control over parliament in the four months since it was installed by President Francisco Guterres Lu Olo in September 2017, caretaker prime minister Mari Alkatiri turned to Facebook to try and get his message out and threaten censorship. At times, it seemed like he was spending more time raging on social media than actually governing, causing some to compare him to Donald Trump's outbursts on Twitter.

In the country's mainstream media, newspaper headlines quoting the caretaker prime minister nearly always began with language phrased in the negative sense. "Mari says I won't … Mari says I don't … Mari says not to …" became a daily occurrence in the nation's papers. Negativity rather than a coherent message became the norm.

In parliament, on the few occasions it was allowed to sit and debate, parliamentary members of Fretilin, which has morphed from revolutionary guerilla force to a major political party — some of whom had been children living outside the country during the Indonesian occupation — harangued the majority opposition for being, in some way or another, opposed to what they saw as Fretilin's single-handed role in obtaining the country's independence. Substantive arguments about the law or constitution were studiously avoided in order to try and belittle or intimidate opposition deputies. So was the fact that independence was obtained by more than the work of one party.

On Facebook, Fretilin supporters swarmed around anybody who tried to express an idea or opinion different from their party line. It was as if the party hierarchy had developed an internal party manual for cadres to use on social media. Any comment that seemed contrary to their propaganda machine was attacked. Just like in parliament, on Facebook rationality was ignored without any logical reason or explanation being offered as to why the person being attacked was incorrect.

The social media manual also seemed to prescribe another tactic. Whenever the Fretilin swarm was unable to silence those voicing an opinion, or was shown up for being irrational or illogical, the comments they made were mysteriously deleted and blocked. The manual probably suggested that in this way the attackers would leave no evidence. However, opposition commentators and others soon caught on to this and began taking screenshots to preserve these attempts at intimidation for the future.

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As the minority government felt itself to be more and more under siege, the caretaker prime minister's Facebook posts intensified. On Dec. 9, Alkatiri announced on Facebook that: "I am in Oecusse. Tomorrow I will return to Dili with new and full strength, to face any challenge. There is only one: Early election in March!"

On Dec. 19, the majority opposition voted against the government's amendment to the budget. A few hours later, Alkatiri was back on Facebook: "Congratulations to the Fretilin/PD bench. Once again the opposition has been defeated by their own vote (against his budget). Struggle to win!"

In October, the opposition had also voted down the government's program (an essential requirement for their ability to govern). Alkatiri then failed to re-present the program by the Nov. 15 deadline, which left him as only a caretaker prime minister. But in early January, Alkatiri was back on Facebook seemingly confused about past events when he posted: "The seventh government's program has passed a long time ago. Because the opposition only rejected it once. Thanks to the opposition."

But unable to engage in debate or take criticism, he would immediately block anyone who, publicly or privately, questioned his statements or tactics. He would not only block ordinary people questioning him, but also opposition members of parliament on Facebook, who you would have assumed had a legitimate right to challenge him in this public forum.

These tactics could only be interpreted as, at their very least, symptoms of a minority government and a prime minister under enormous pressure. They also gave rise to a fear that the prime minister did indeed have a strong anti-democratic streak. His followers tried to excuse his behavior, with the claim that they were yet again the victims of foreign interference — whether it be China, Indonesia, Australia or the U.S. These absurd claims were in line with the defense minister's statement, made last December, that some members of the majority opposition were in fact American spies.

Soon Facebook posts suggested a law should be brought in to control criticism of politicians on social media. Then the caretaker prime minister gave an interview on national television stating that he would sue anyone who continued to 'insult' him on Facebook. Not only did this again reinforce fears that free speech may be jeopardized, they brought to the fore the main difference between the Fretilin leadership and the political culture of the nation. Timorese society and politics gives precedence to inclusion and discussion.

In the past Xanana Gusmao has always widely consulted and taken advice from others outside his party or close circle of advisors. It is a practice consistent with the country's communal society. In many ways, the coming election is a fight between that inclusive communal way of doing politics, deeply rooted in Timorese culture, and a leadership that sees politics where one party's closed leadership circle must decide and drag the rest of the country along with it, no matter what the population on Facebook or any other place think or say.

The machine continued to post strange analysis of the facts when after the president dissolved parliament because of Fretilin's own inability to govern, their spokesperson Matias Boavida posted on Facebook: "The opposition has lost the political game and the government will maintain its rule and will rule for 6 years."

Jose Belo is a journalist and commentator based in Dili.

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