Timor-Leste: A State of Insecurity
Timor-Leste: A State of Insecurity
Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?
Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?
Op-Ed / Asia 6 minutes

Timor-Leste: A State of Insecurity

East Timor’s political elite and international agencies have only one opportunity left to redress the failures of the post-independence era, says Neil Campbell.

An incident during my recent visit to Timor-Leste gave a useful insight into the difficult security conditions in the small, young and troubled independent state. A few kilometres outside the capital Dili, under the shadow of the Cristo Rei statue, I came across an agitated western official shouting down a mobile-phone - a borrowed phone, for his own had been stolen, along with his wallet and passport. The person on the other end of the line was the thief, with whom the official was trying to arrange a suitable "agreement" for the return of his valuables.

There was no point in him going to the police. Most local police remained suspended as a result of the intense turmoil in the country in April-June 2006; those who were still in place would not do anything; and the international police stationed in Timor-Leste would not even know where to start.

It is not just foreigners but the Timorese themselves who face pressures and demands from criminals. The country's security situation has been deeply degraded since 2006 crisis, in which thirty-eight people were killed, the police suspended, and the army cut by half. Much-needed reforms of the two institutions - promised by the president elected in May 2007, José Ramos-Horta, and crucial for wider economic and social development - remain on hold. Meanwhile, East Timor (as the country is also known) is being held to ransom by an army-deserter with an internet connection.

The former military-police commander, Alfredo Reinado, commands his own mini-fiefdom from his retreat in the hills of Ermera district. The semi-coherent tirade he posted on the internet in late December 2007 - one of a series - accuses Timor-Leste's prime minister (and ex-president), independence hero Xanana Gusmão, of "masterminding" the 2006 crisis.

Reinado is an abrasive symptom of Timor-Leste's predicament. He played a key role in the crisis before being arrested by international peacekeepers in July 2006, but has been on the run since he walked out of prison a month later. In February 2007, Australian troops (from the International Stabilisation Force [ISF] which they lead) attempted to capture him after he "borrowed" guns from border police; they killed five of Reinado's men, but he again escaped. Since then, there has been a legal fight between international authorities and the Dili government about Reinado, pitting the United Nations-funded judge, Ivo Rosa (who has asked the international forces to arrest him) against José Ramos-Horta (who has asked them not to). For the moment at least, the internationals are listening to the president.

The problem for the government is that Reinado has won over to his side many of the so-called "petitioners": those who presented the petition of complaints about conditions within and management of the army that sparked the April-June 2006 violence. The leader of the original group of petitioners, Gastao Salsinha, now calls himself Reinado's "lieutenant". This has complicated the government's strategy of devising a strategy that deals separately with the leader and the group.

But neither is this good news for the petitioners themselves. Their alignment with Reinado - whose obstinate stance is in part a defiant reaction to his increasingly untenable situation - only damages their own cause. Even those with legitimate complaints and a desire to return to the army are compromised by association with a fugitive operating beyond the law; while the very security-sector reforms they called for, and which are clearly needed, are being delayed.

A combustible society

The Dili government now has a golden, if finite, opportunity to address the major security problems - and in doing so, demonstrate that Alfredo Reinado is but a distraction from the real tasks facing Timor-Leste's institutions and people. The international security presence - consisting of 1,480 UN police officers and about 1,000 troops under the Australian-led ISF - gives the government in Dili the support and breathing-space it needs to clarify the respective roles of the Timorese army and police.

So far, it is not happening. True, the Timorese police are undergoing the last stage of a screening and mentoring process that should result in a seal of approval for officers to return to full-time duty. But the quality of training and preparation of personnel in the UN police-mentoring system is poor, while persistent security problems keep the international police busy and distract them from their own mentoring task.

The problems are evident in East Timor's teeming displacement camps, which house 100,000 people - 30,000 in Dili alone. Many of the displaced have fled Ermera in fear of Reinado and his supporters. The camps themselves have become a security issue - both as a source and magnet for criminal activity and as a base of opposition support, to the extent that the UN police (seen also as pro-government) is reluctant to enter. The lack of policing reinforces the problems, but only in emergencies that the more robust single-nation "formed police units" or the International Stabilisation Force itself are called in. The effect of this unstable cycle of low-level conflict and ad hoc security is  increased antagonism towards the UN and the international presence as a whole.

This situation reflects the failure of the main institutions responsible for Timor-Leste's security. This is no longer the world's youngest country, and it is very far from the shining example of nation-building it hoped to present to the world after a twenty-seven-year struggle against Indonesian rule culminated in independence in 2002. Worse, it looks as if the mistakes that led to the crisis of 2006 and unresolved aftermath are about to be repeated. The domestic political elite has been unable so far to achieve any national unity or non-partisan support for the reform of a still politicised and disjointed security sector. The UN, mandated to assist with the reforms, has shown little or no progress in the eighteen months it has been on the ground.

The UN's security-reform work was suspended in 2007 to allow UN officials to focus on oversight of the presidential (April-May) and parliamentary (June) elections. But since November 2007, when Eric Tan left the office of the deputy special representative of the UN secretary-general in charge of security-sector support, the post has lain empty as no replacement has been found.

Time is running out. International forces cannot be expected to police Timor for ever.  This is a combustible society: youth unemployment in Dili alone is around 50%, and there are increasing incidents of fights among martial-arts groups and criminal gangs. The World Bank estimates that by 2010, as many as 40% of all Timorese will belong to the 15-29 year-old age group. This large and growing human resource (and potential labour-force) urgently needs economic development, but this in turn requires a society based on the rule of law. In this connection, a current proposal to solve youthful unemployment via military conscription is way off the mark: the army requires recruits who want to be there, not those press-ganged to serve for a short period before leaving (perhaps to put their higher fitness-levels to use in a destructive cause).

After the honeymoon

The first step needed to defuse Timor-Leste's insecurity is to launch a comprehensive, inclusive review process that informs the government of the country's security requirements. Such a review will also show the Timorese that their government is acting seriously on its behalf, rather than squabbling over political differences. The United Nations can usefully assist in this process through its security-sector support unit - but only if accompanied by the necessary leadership, funds and personnel.

In this sense, the high-profile Alfredo Reinado is indeed but a symptom of Timor-Leste's acute problems, and the focus on him a diversion from the need to address these in a systematic, coherent way. Timor-Leste's post-independence inheritance was painful and difficult, but its government and the international community's lack of urgency has meant that what hope and optimism there was have been replaced by drift, neglect and fear. These actors must take what may be a last opportunity to renew their commitments to the Timorese people. If they do not, the 2006 crisis may be remembered as a precursor to an even worse one in 2008.

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