Timor-Leste: No Time for Complacency
Asia Briefing N°87
9 Feb 2009
A year after the near-fatal shooting of President José Ramos-Horta, security in Timor-Leste is strikingly improved. Armed rebels are no longer at large. The atmosphere on the streets of Dili is far less tense. The government does not seem to be facing any serious political threat to its survival. It has, at least temporarily, been able to address several of the most pressing security threats, in large part by buying off those it sees as potential troublemakers. Nevertheless, the current period of calm is not cause for complacency. Security sector reform is lagging, the justice system is weak, the government shows signs of intolerance towards dissenting voices, and it has not got a grip on corruption. These problems, which have been at the root of the instability facing Timor-Leste since independence, must be tackled if the country is to escape the cycle of conflict.
When President Ramos-Horta was shot in February 2008, many feared Timor-Leste was falling back into violence. But the incident and its aftermath strengthened the government. It removed the rebel Reinado from the scene, while the government’s decisive response boosted popular confidence. Subsequent progress on difficult issues, such as the group of former soldiers known as the “petitioners” and the internally displaced persons (IDPs), won it further political credit. The government coalition has remained strong, while Fretilin initially found it hard to come to terms with being in opposition. Although it is increasingly effective in that important role – landing some punches on the government on issues such as financial transparency – its threats to withdraw from parliament and organise mass demonstrations against the legitimacy of the government demonstrate weakness, not strength.
Substantial challenges remain. The government has taken few serious steps to address the problems in the security sector which led to the 2006 crisis. It seems uninterested in the comprehensive security review recommended by the UN Security Council in August 2006. Responsibilities remain blurred between the army and police. The “Joint Command” created to arrest the president’s attackers bolstered the army’s ambitions to serve an internal security role. That operation saw a stream of human rights abuses, stemming from ill-discipline and a sense of being above the law. There are tensions between the Timorese and the international security forces, with the Timorese police increasingly resisting UN supervision. There are also signs of worrying disdain for the justice system and civilian control over the army. The police and army depend too heavily on a few individuals and on personal relationships that have been able to hold the security forces together.
Presidential interventions in cases involving political violence have undermined an already weak justice system. They send a signal that those involved, especially the elite, will not be held to account, creating resentment among the victims and failing to create a deterrent for the future. Timor-Leste has seen too much impunity, and too many people have evaded responsibility for their actions.
The government’s policy of “buying off” groups such as the petitioners and IDPs has led to short term results, but carries risks. It has encouraged other groups to demand “compensation” too. A danger is that Timor-Leste may develop an entitlement culture where increasing numbers depend on, and expect, state hand-outs.
The government has bought time and public confidence. It needs to use it to address the underlying sources of tensions which led to the 2006 crisis.