Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?
Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?
Report 120 / Asia

Resolving Timor-Leste’s Crisis

The worst crisis in Timor-Leste’s short history is far from over. The country is in political limbo, waiting for the report of the UN-appointed Independent Special Commission of Inquiry that is expected to name names and recommend prosecutions for perpetrators of the April-May violence in Dili that killed more than 30 people.

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Executive Summary

The worst crisis in Timor-Leste’s short history is far from over. The country is in political limbo, waiting for the report of the UN-appointed Independent Special Commission of Inquiry that is expected to name names and recommend prosecutions for perpetrators of the April-May violence in Dili that killed more than 30 people. Scheduled for release in mid-October, it is critical to moving forward but potentially explosive. Elections scheduled for May 2007 could be another flashpoint. With some creativity, focus, and political will, Timor-Leste can get back on track but the wounds are deep, and it will require enormous political magnanimity on the part of a few key actors.

There is, however, a growing consensus on what is needed for resolution, including security sector reform. A new, expanded UN mission is in place with the mandate of “consolidating stability, enhancing a culture of democratic governance, and facilitating dialogue among Timorese stakeholders”.

The crisis is widely portrayed as stemming from the sacking of a third of the country’s defence forces in March 2006, after which the disgruntled soldiers became part of a power struggle between President Xanana Gusmao and the now deposed prime minister, Mari Alkatiri. However, the problem is far more complex.

The roots lie partly in the battles and betrayals that occurred within the Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of East Timor (FRETILIN), just before and during the Indonesian occupation. Ideological and political disputes in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly between FRETILIN central committee members and Xanana Gusmao, then commander of the guerrilla army FALINTIL, carried over into the post-conflict government.

They are also to be found in the poorly implemented demobilisation of FALINTIL fighters in 2000 and the creation of a defence force for the new country in 2001 that absorbed some of the veterans but left others unemployed and resentful while donors and the UN devoted most of their attention to creation of a new police force. That many of the police, vetted and retrained, had worked for the Indonesian administration, was more salt in the wounds of the ex-fighters.

The old ideological splits and the frustrations of the ex-FALINTIL were manipulated in particular by Rogerio Lobato, a FRETILIN central committee member who had lived in Angola and Mozambique for the duration of the conflict. As interior minister, he controlled the police, encouraged rivalry with the defence force, most of whom were personally loyal to Xanana Gusmao, and created specialised police units that effectively became a private security force. The police under him were in charge of law and order, border patrol, riot control and immigration. It was never clear what the role of the defence force was.

All these problems had been festering for years. When 159 soldiers in January 2006 petitioned the president as supreme commander, alleging discrimination in the defence force by officers from the eastern part of the country (lorosae) against people from the west (loromonu), many interested parties saw political opportunity. More soldiers from the west joined the petitioners, while personal and institutional tensions between a president commited to pluralism and a ruling party with distinctly authoritarian tendencies, politicisation of the police, lack of any regulatory framework for the security forces more generally and the in-bred nature of a tiny political elite with 30 years’ shared history allowed matters to spiral out of control.

Jakarta/Brussels, 10 October 2006

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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