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Timor-Leste: Everybody needs good neighbours
Timor-Leste: Everybody needs good neighbours
Briefing 134 / Asia

Timor-Leste’s Elections: Leaving Behind a Violent Past?

Timor-Leste’s upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections will be an important step in consolidating the relative stability the country has enjoyed since recovering from the 2006 crisis, but a number of security risks deserve continued attention.

I. Overview

Timor-Leste’s 2012 general elections will provide an important test of the country’s resilience as it celebrates ten years of independence. The governing coalition has undertaken few of the long-term reforms seen as necessary after the 2006 crisis but increased wealth has given many a growing stake in stability. The outcome of polls remains difficult to predict given the breadth of the field in each poll and the weakness of issue-based politics. Successful elections will be important not just toward securing the long-awaited withdrawal of the country’s UN peacekeeping mission but also may give its leaders the confidence to confront its many challenges.

The country is markedly more peaceful than when general elections were last conducted in 2007, but many of the root causes of fragility persist. Relations among the small circle of political leaders are far friendlier, but anger over the past, particularly with regard to the 2006 crisis, remains deeply entrenched. There is a growing number of unemployed youth, particularly in Dili, and gang and martial arts group violence are recurrent problems. No one is sure how closely these issues will feed into political rivalry, but any deliberate manipulation of these frustrations has the potential to be incendiary.

The field will be broad in both polls but once again the real contest is between a handful of familiar players. After a first round of presidential polls on 17 March, two of the following will likely proceed to a second round in April: the incumbent José Ramos-Horta, current parliamentary speaker Fernando “Lasama” de Araújo, his predecessor Fran­ci­sco Guterres “Lu Olo”, or the former armed forces chief, Taur Matan Ruak. Twenty-four parties are poised to compete in parliamentary polls in late June, but only two look capable of winning a majority: Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão’s Congresso Nacional de Reconstrução de Timor-Leste (CNRT) and the party that headed the country’s first government, the Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente (Fretilin). A more likely outcome is a coalition government formed by one of these two with a handful of the 22 smaller parties competing. The breadth of this competition, which includes several new parties, makes predicting the parliamentary results difficult.

Political tensions have largely been tempered in the lead up to polls and the security situation remains stable despite a small uptick in violent crime. As campaign season approaches and the political temperature rises, law enforcement capacity remains weak and this means the sources of potential security risks are many. The UN police and the small International Stabilisation Force (ISF) can help buttress crowd control and riot response, but the focus should be on other measures. Civil society groups have a role to play in helping educate voters and monitoring adherence to codes of conduct, as well as shining light on any proxy role in election-related intimidation or violence that martial arts groups could play. Public relations should be a key part of the planned joint operations centre for election security response: rumours have stoked violence and a quick-footed response by police in combating misinformation could help keep the peace. The greatest risk is the near-complete impunity for political violence: the candidates should make it clear now that such crimes will no longer be forgiven.

The UN also has a role to play. National authorities will take responsibility for administering the country’s second major polls since independence, but the UN mission should be ready to take both private and public steps in response to any serious violations of electoral regulations. One product of the UN’s thirteen-year presence in Timor is a strong sense of its mission as a guarantor of free and fair polls even if it plays only a supporting role.

Electoral violence in Timor-Leste’s short history is a symptom of embittered political rivalries that extend back into the resistance struggle and the high stakes of political competition. Relations between the small political elite will heal at their own pace, but several steps could be taken in the medium term to lower existing pressures. These include staggering the calendar for presidential and parliamentary polls in different years and encouraging the development of reliable opinion polling or parallel vote tabulation. A staggered calendar could lower tensions around both elections. Polling or quick counts could provide a reality check to the partisan fervour that characterises campaigning and remove some of the pressure on the announcement of results, historically a trigger of violence.

While polls unmarred by serious violence are a prerequisite for the UN’s departure, robust but peaceful political competition is important to the country’s long-term stability. This election has raised understandable nervousness among many Timorese of the prospects of a return to violence. Many difficult reforms since 2006 have been deferred in the fear that they might jeopardise the consolidation of stability. Successful polls should give the new government the confidence to put more hard work towards developing consensus and enacting reforms to strengthen the rule of law.

Dili/Jakarta/Brussels, 21 February 2012

Op-Ed / Asia

Timor-Leste: Everybody needs good neighbours

Originally published in The Interpreter

Early in 2010, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was sitting in Kabul with some diplomats who had served in Indonesia and Timor-Leste.

'Is it true', he asked, 'that Indonesia just walked away from East Timor after 1999?'

'Absolutely', they replied.

Karzai is a natural sceptic, but he saw something to be admired in the way Indonesia had turned its back on a conflict by which it had so long defined itself. 'This is not something well understood', he said.

Last month at the Australian Civil-Military Centre I was asked to remember what had been learnt from the first three international interventions in East Timor between 1999 and 2002, each often cited as a success story. First, UNAMET ran the referendum that certified the Timorese desire for independence. Then INTERFET enforced the peace and guaranteed the outcome of the vote would be respected. Finally, UNTAET brought the country to independence.

In 1999, UNAMET, while nominally a UN mission, was an extension of Canberra's foreign policy with the whole of government behind it. Prime Minister Howard rolled up his sleeves and negotiated with President Habibie all sorts of details, including the number of UN civilian police supervising the ballot and the establishment of an Australian consulate in Dili. Foreign Minister Downer proclaimed there should be no logistical reasons for delaying the ballot. If the UN needed something, it would be provided.

Proximity gave Australia both motive and means to back this and subsequent missions. It would not have and could not have done the same for either Sri Lanka or Singapore.

As UNAMET proceeded, the ADF quietly planned for the day when things did go wrong and UN personnel and their families, as well as prominent citizens such as Nobel laureate Bishop Belo, needed sanctuary. This evacuation rolled into INTERFET, which saw an unprecedented mobilisation of Australian diplomatic, military, and financial muscle in support of a peace enforcement operation. About A$740 million later, Australia handed responsibility for security to UNTAET in early 2000.

Most contemporaneous lessons learnt focused on UNTAET's technocratic failings. If you were in it, as I was, you knew it was an ad hoc adventure and a bit chaotic. The experts concluded the UN was unequipped for such a mammoth task and needed to be reformed to meet future challenges. Yet while UNTAET was flawed, it did hand over a functioning government for the Timorese to run on 20 May 2002.

One key factor in the success of these missions is often neglected — the absence of external spoilers. This is what President Karzai saw too.

Timor-Leste was a lucky country that came of age just as Indonesia democratised and its military was leaving the national stage. The post-Soeharto civilian political leadership quickly turned its back on the former province and got on with the business of internal reform. It repealed the 1976 integration law in October 1999 and left the territory to the UN. Then Mines and Oil Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono renounced Indonesia's claim on Timor's oil, thereby making the new republic economically viable.

By the time the UN was ready to give the country back to the Timorese in May 2002, Indonesia had been through three presidents. Megawati Soekarnoputri, the one least supportive of East Timor's plight, magnanimously showed up for the party.

But, Mr Karzai, Indonesia did not just walk away from Timor, it did something much more extraordinary: it enthusiastically embraced the idea of an independent Timor-Leste.

Such diplomatic gymnastics still startle the old hands every time one of the Indonesian veterans of 1999 blogs, tweets, or posts pictures of new found Timorese friend who was once their adversary. Despite the odd hiccup (the two countries still cannot agree on a land or maritime border), the relationship is increasingly broad and mutually profitable.

After UNAMET was over, UN officials wrote to Australian counterparts to tell them we could not have performed the mission without them. Indonesia never received such thank-you letters, as its turn-around from belligerent party to good neighbour took some years. Also, its misbehaviour and scorched earth policy in 1999 has never been forgotten and neither have the crimes against humanity that took place on Jakarta's watch, which are still to be properly accounted for.

But how did a friendship blossom amid such bitter memories? Most importantly, the Timorese were ready to trade justice for peace. The realpolitik moment was the final report of the imperfect 2005-2008 Commission of Truth and Friendship (CTF). In turn for not pursuing crimes against humanity against Indonesian perpetrators, Timor-Leste, through the CTF, gained a sense of equality with its former coloniser; Indonesia lost the pebble in its shoe as it aspired to fill the boots of a being a regional power.

But such morally ambiguous deals do not negate the strategic reality that is clear now, a decade after independence; you really do need good neighbours to make a complex peace operation work. In the case of Timor-Leste, it took one with deep pockets and can-do spirit to the south as well as another to the west ready to leave quietly, do nothing and then overcome its enormous loss of face to want to try again to be best friends with the new nation over its back fence.