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Recognising Timor-Leste’s Veterans
Recognising Timor-Leste’s Veterans
Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?
Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?
Speech / Asia

Recognising Timor-Leste’s Veterans

Conference: "10 years later: the contribution of social programs in the construction of a Welfare State in Timor-Leste", Dili, Timor-Leste.

Recognising and honouring the contribution of Timor-Leste’s veterans, or national liberation combatants, is a keystone of the state’s broader social policies. The responsibility to provide recognition (valorização) and tribute (homenagem) to the national heroes is laid out in Article 11 of the Constitution. Over the past ten years, successive governments have sought the best means for implementing this responsibility.

Efforts to recognise and improve the welfare of the country’s veterans began almost immediately after independence. This was undertaken most notably through the work of the various Commissions established to record and register the contributions of the many contributors to Timor-Leste’s resistance struggle in various fronts. These included the Comissão Comissão para os Assuntos dos Antigos Combatentes (CAAC) and the Comissão para os Assuntos dos Veteranos das FALINTIL (CAVF), which each handled registration of those who fought in the armed front, and the Comissão para os Assuntos dos Quadros da Resistência (CAQR), which registered members of the clandestine front. There were 76,063 registered in a first phase.

The early work of the commissions was instrumental not only in allowing future decisions to be made on eligibility for benefits, but also in underscoring the importance of the contribution of the veterans to independence, a crucial component of recognition. Many key veterans were engaged as commissioners, which helped strengthen the legitimacy of the state and its government, particularly among the recently demobilised members of the armed front. The decision to register the veterans before deciding how they would benefit was initially important in managing the expectations of the still-fragile state, but it also created some difficulties:  after a 2006 law was passed determining eligibility for various categories of service, it was clear that in some cases more information was needed. The difficulties of managing such a large database, and some instances of alleged corruption in the handling of files, have both contributed to the length of time required to sort through eligibility for benefits.

As Timor-Leste grew wealthier with the growth of the Petroleum Fund, huge financial pressures began to on the veterans’ benefit scheme. The granting of other benefits such as the pensão vitalícia (life-time pension) for parliamentarians and former state office-holders in 2007 as well as other disbursements by the state increased the pressure for significant payments to veterans. The total expected value of annual pension payments due to veterans in 2012 is now over $67 million, more than half the expenditure of the Ministry of Social Solidarity and four per cent of the state budget. This number will only grow as further as more of those who have registered for benefits are deemed eligible for payments. Many beneficiaries are not the national liberation combatants themselves but their surviving family members, many of whom may be drawing pensions for years to come. Together, the parliament and government elected by Timorese in 2012 will have to consider whether the monetary value of these benefits needs to be reviewed.

The work of the commissions remains a difficult task and is still far from being complete. A second phase of registrations opened in 2009 and saw the entering of a further 121,570 claims. A verification commission began work on the first set of claims in 2010 and, by engaging former members of the resistance, sought to reduce the number of alleged false claims. It made limited progress, excluding 3.5% of cases and leaving 4,220 cases pending. Many of the commissioners involved believed that many other claimants had not been entirely truthful—as several observed, “if there had been this many veterans, we would have won our independence in a matter of years!” While the nature of verification is difficult work, improving public confidence in the integrity of the database will be important to promoting the perception of all social assistance programs.

One priority area for further clarification is how to handle the recognition of those who served in the clandestine front. A far smaller proportion of those who served in the clandestine front qualify for National Liberation Combatant status, given the requirement in the law for “exclusive dedication” (“dedicação com carácter exclusiva”) to the struggle in counting time towards eligibility. How this clause is interpreted has been a source of continued confusion. Because the nature of service to the clandestine front was by definition kept secret, it will be most difficult for the government to maintain transparency in how it recognises the work of these veterans. Clarification on how different types of service are going to be counted would be useful.

Another remaining challenge lies in determining the role of a Veterans’ Council (Conselho dos Combatentes da Libertação Nacional). While it is hoped that the Council could play a key role in helping settle some of the remaining policy questions, the very composition of the Council, including what weighting will be given to membership of the armed and clandestine fronts, remains contentious. If the Council is given a strong consultative role in government policy, as many veterans have pushed for, it also risks drowning out other voices and constituencies.

As Timor-Leste continues to expand assistance to veterans, martyrs and their families, it will need to look for ways to complement the sizeable cash benefits with other assistance. This includes priorities already identified such as expanding school subsidies and medical assistance, but should go beyond this to help families manage the cash benefits to ensure they translate into improved livelihoods. If the benefits scheme has been heavily weighted in favour of members of the armed front, further investment in memorialisation of all those who contributed to the resistance is important, including progress on plans to construct monuments at the sub-district level and a monument for the Santa Cruz massacre.

By investing early in initiatives, both material and symbolic, to recognise the veterans of its independence struggle, Timor-Leste has avoided the kind of  violent tensions surrounding veterans familiar to some other countries that have emerged from liberation struggles. Future governments will have to examine carefully the costs of these benefits in the context of the state’s broader social assistance goals and ensure that processes for determining eligibility are as transparent as possible.

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.