Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?
Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?
Briefing 110 / Asia

Managing Land Conflict in Timor-Leste

Measures to resolve land disputes in Timor-Leste must go beyond a draft law on land titling if they are to comprehensively reduce the risks posed, otherwise the law could bring more problems than solutions.


Eight years after independence, Timor-Leste is still without a legal basis for determining ownership of land. In its absence, the challenges of enforcing property rights have grown more complex and increased the potential for conflict. The politically charged task of sifting through overlapping claims inherited from the country’s two colonial administrations has been complicated by widespread illegal occupation of property after the displacement of over half the population that followed the 1999 referendum. The legal and social uncertainties this created magnified the effects of the country’s 2006 crisis, causing further mass displacement in the capital and beyond. Resolution of these uncertainties through new laws, regulations and policies is necessary to reduce conflict, diminish the risk of further instability and to provide a clear way to resolve past and future disputes.

Land disputes have grown out of a history of displacement that includes forced relocations, military occupation and deadly internal upheavals. Despite this troubled history, few disputes over land ownership lead to violence. Many have been resolved or at least managed through informal mediation, a marker of the strength of customary understandings of land tenure and local communities. Yet some cases remain beyond the capacity of village chiefs, local elders or religious leaders to fix. Others are “pending” in anticipation of long-promised legislation expected to clarify cases that have complex (and undocumented) historical roots. The risk is that this has created expectations that legislation alone will be unable to meet. Many of these issues are more political than technical and will not be resolved by the application of titling laws. Given the weaknesses of the Timorese legal system, support to existing mediation will need to be strengthened alongside new laws to provide a realistic option for those parties ready to settle out of court.

Draft legislation on land titling before parliament will be an important first step towards better management of land disputes and pave the way to enforcement of a new civil code to govern all property rights. It will provide the first legal proof of ownership and provide protections in a growing property market. It will also raise the stakes in ownership disputes and thus the risk of conflict. While the collection of land claims underway in many of the country’s urban areas has shown the level of disputes to be below 10 per cent, it has also brought dormant issues to the surface, such as problems with intra-familial inheritance and tensions over land between communities.

The government has so far been unable to provide alternative housing to the displaced or evicted, an essential element of the constitutional right to housing. A worst-case scenario is for a new land administration system that would legalise dispossession without providing basic protections to those who may be evicted due to either illegal occupation or government expropriation. Land in Dili and other urban areas is already at a premium. Protections in the draft legislation for land held under customary ownership – the vast majority of the nation’s land – are very weak, especially in the face of broad powers granted to the state. In many communities, the individual titles offered by the new legislation are unlikely to be appropriate or in demand. It is the government’s prerogative to develop the country, but without agreeing to clear and enforceable protections for those who will require resettlement, it risks simply creating discontent and rejection of the state’s authority, weakening the very rights it seeks to reinforce. The government’s new ambitious plans for development by 2030 make resolution of such questions more urgent.

Strengthening property rights in Timor-Leste will require more than a law. It needs further consultation and agreement on how to manage community land holdings, particularly as the country seeks to encourage new investment. To address these concerns, a medium-term goal should be to develop a comprehensive land use policy that incorporates community priorities. Earlier donor-driven attempts have fallen short. High-level government engagement and improved mediation will also be required to solve many of the political challenges that surround the more intractable land disputes. While a law on titling remains the first step, to date the draft is poorly understood. Broader debate anchored by wider public information on the law and its implications should be a prerequisite for its passage. This needs to be balanced against the risk of creating even more delays.

As the government plans for accelerated development and identifies areas for donor support, its priorities should include:

  • further consultation and explanation of the implications of the land law and associated legislation before passage by parliament;
  • immediate clarification on basic protections and resettlement plans for those who will have to move after being deemed illegal occupants;
  • engagement with local communities on how the government can protect the rights of communities and access to land held under customary tenure;
  • strengthened support to informal mediation processes alongside the formal land titling; and
  • beginning discussion on a comprehensive land and housing policy that would incorporate community needs and government objectives.

Dili/Brussels, 9 September 2010

Commentary / Asia

Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?

Timor-Leste seems to have passed the test. With last Saturday’s parliamentary poll, it has now held three elections this year without significant violence. This will allow for the withdrawal of a UN peacekeeping mission whose 1,100-strong police component has long seemed out of synch with local realities. Its violent recent past may increasingly look like history, although the poor country that celebrated only the 10th anniversary of the restoration of its independence in May still faces numerous challenges.

Concerns that the formation of a new coalition government might give rise to violence, as occurred following the 2007 elections, now look misplaced as provisional results show only four parties due to take seats in parliament (official results are due next week). A look at the seat results shows that the CNRT (National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction) has increased its share from 18 to 30 seats, and looks likely to form another government with former coalition partner Partido Democrático (eight seats) and maybe Frenti-Mudança (two seats).This is good for stability in the short term, but it also carries risks. A stronger government composed of fewer parties may be able to pursue clearer legislative objectives, but it will put great pressure on FRETILIN as perhaps the only party in opposition. As a young country only ten years on from independence, Timor-Leste’s parliament continues to consider questions of fundamental importance to the country’s future on which there is much debate, such as how to spend the billions in its Petroleum Fund, or how to structure land administration. Chosen from party lists and not constituencies, giving them little incentive to engage with communities, Timor-Leste’s parliamentarians to date have struggled to provide either an effective check on the executive or a constructive partner by initiating their own legislation. CNRT’s dominance will mean less active scrutiny and will further erode its role as an instrument of accountability.

The elections were not violence-free. There were some minor incidents of stone throwing and a report of three houses being burnt in Viqueque district in the last few days. But even in this volatile part of Timor-Leste, it was much less than the hundreds burnt around the 2007 polls. When we visited the district in May and asked why, the answer from the police, local government, chefes de suco, and civil society workers alike was unanimous – the threats from heads of the police and army had worked. Their blunt warnings that troublemakers would be shot were backed up with high-profile joint patrols and those contemplating violence got the message. It was a victory for “conflict prevention” that raised new questions about how the country will be governed in the future.

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