Timor-Leste’s Veterans: An Unfinished Struggle?
Asia Briefing N°129
18 Nov 2011
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More than ten years after the formation of Timor-Leste’s army and the demobilisation of the guerrilla force that fought for independence, the struggle continues about how to pay tribute to the veterans. The increasingly wealthy state has bought off the threat once posed by most dissidents with an expensive cash benefits scheme and succeeded in engaging most veterans’ voices in mainstream politics. This approach has created a heavy financial burden and a complicated process of determining who is eligible that will create new tensions even as it resolves others. A greater challenge lies in containing pressures to give them disproportionate political influence and a formal security role. A careful balance will need to be struck between paying homage to heroes while allowing a younger generation of leaders to grow up to replace them. Failure could block the generational transfer of power necessary for the state’s long-term stability.
The question of who and how many qualify for veteran status remains both difficult and politically charged. The contributions of hundreds of fighters of the Forças Armadas de Libertação Nacional de Timor-Leste (Falintil), who comprised the armed front during the 24-year resistance to Indonesian occupation, are the most straightforward. A well-known and far smaller diplomatic front walked the corridors of the UN in New York and in capitals to ensure the outside world never forgot their struggle. As the resistance matured, a clandestine front emerged as an integral part of the struggle for independence, smuggling in supplies to the guerrillas, capturing media attention and frustrating Indonesian intelligence efforts. While this latter group was the most numerous, the contributions of many of these men and women remained unknown even to one another, as they worked in the shadows.
Since independence, complex arrays of commissions and laws have been formed to register and pay homage to this mostly undocumented movement. These efforts have increasingly focused on compensation with $72 million (6 per cent of the state budget) set aside for veterans’ benefits in 2011. While the promise of money has eased discontent among dissident former Falintil fighters, it has also brought a flood of apparently false claims of service, making any definitive list of veterans an unreachable goal. A decision to “reactivate resistance structures” to boost legitimacy has not solved the problem. Judgment on difficult cases has been deferred based on a belief that fraudulent claims will be revealed through denunciation once the lists are published. Even with the option to appeal, new discontent is being created that will require mediation.
Beyond cash benefits, there are two areas where veterans’ demands for greater influence will have to be checked. The first is the scope and shape of a proposed veterans’ council, whose primary role will be to consult on benefits as well as to offer a seal of institutional legitimacy. Some veterans hope it will be given an advisory dimension, allowing them to guide government policy and cementing their elite status. Such a broad role looks unlikely but the illusion that veterans might be given more influence has likely increased the government’s appeal in advance of elections next year. It could also serve as a useful bridge to dissident groups who have thus far stayed outside electoral politics.
The second decision is whether to give Falintil veterans a formal security role in defending the state. This appears most likely to come in the form of a military reserve force as foreseen in existing legislation. While a ceremonial role for Falintil would recognise the guerrilla army’s important legacy, the government should stop short of using veterans to constitute a formal reserve. The danger of arming them was made clear in the violence of the 2006 crisis, as they formed part of different opposing factions armed by state institutions. They were neither disciplined nor united, and added to the violence rather than controlled it.
The state still faces a difficult challenge in balancing veterans’ demands for recognition with efforts to promote strong and independent institutions. Only with the right balance will a shift in power be possible from the “Generation of ’75” that brought the country to independence and still holds onto power. Timorese politics and its security sector institutions remain held together by a small set of personalities rather than bound by legal rules. In a leadership environment marked by few real changes since before independence, the recent resignation of the armed forces chief, Taur Matan Ruak, may yet prove to be a big step towards generational succession. As the military’s leadership is now forced to evolve, so must the country’s politicians.
Donors have little role to play in influencing policy towards former combatants, but the challenges of the veterans’ pension system underscore the difficulty in designing cash transfer programs that are less susceptible to fraud. This is one area where outside technical help could be useful.
Dili/Jakarta/Brussels, 18 November 2011