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Timor's predicament

John Virgoe, The Age  |   23 Apr 2008

The country is dealing well with some pressing issues, but problems are being allowed to fester, writes John Virgoe.

President Jose Ramos Horta made a warmly greeted return to East Timor last week, two months after he was shot in an early morning encounter with rebels. By all accounts, he has made a remarkable recovery, but his country's wounds are slower to heal.

There are some positive signs. The Government did well in its initial response to the crisis. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao and other senior figures came across as statesmanlike and decisive, and explained their actions to the population. The Government followed correct procedures — convening an early meeting of the Council of Ministers and getting parliament to confirm the state of siege — and avoided playing party politics.

In short, in sharp contrast with 2006, the Government looked like a government and gained credibility. The events also brought reconfirmation of international solidarity. In particular, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's visit to Dili was widely interpreted as a sign of support, not only for Timor's democracy, but for Gusmao and Ramos Horta personally.

The Government is using this enhanced credibility to press ahead with some important policies, including tackling the problem of the 100,000 people forced from their homes by communal violence in 2006. It is eliminating one of the main factors keeping people from returning home — the distribution of free food in the camps — and has not backed down despite protests from camp dwellers. The Government plan is a good one, but it needs to be accompanied by other crucial elements, most significantly the creation of a fair property regime and the prosecution of those responsible for burning houses and driving out neighbours.

Two other key issues require serious attention: security sector reform and accountability.

Timor's dysfunctional and politicised security forces were responsible for the security meltdown in 2006. That crisis in turn led directly to the February 11 shootings. Those problems have not been tackled.

The UN Security Council has called for a comprehensive review of East Timor's security sector. The review is needed to clarify who is in charge of security sector policy, to set out the tasks of the police and military, and to promote non-partisanship and professionalism.

It is essential for Timor's democratic development that the army is under civilian control. The army has expressed interest in Fiji's military as a model, but the Fijian army's record of conducting coups and interfering in national politics is not one to be emulated.

The joint police-military command structure put in place after February 11 risks blurring police-military responsibilities. As a temporary measure, it is understandable: the army should arguably be involved in the hunt for a well-armed group of former soldiers who have just shot the head of state. The joint command was set up through constitutional means, and clear responsibilities assigned. The police and army are working surprisingly well together.

But the joint command is likely to prove unworkable as old differences re-emerge between the police and army. Reports are starting to emerge of abuses. The joint command and the "state of siege" must be temporary emergency measures, to be ended as soon as possible — and not as precedents for a continuing internal security role for the military. The present arrangements also put a remarkable concentration of power in the hands of one man — the Prime Minister, Minister of Interior, and Minister of Defence, Xanana Gusmao.

It is important not to lose sight of the importance of community policing — locally based and focused as much on crime prevention as response — in fostering a sense of security, especially in a country with a history of a heavy military presence.

The question of accountability is also unresolved. In the weeks before he was shot, Ramos Horta was working on a package to solve Timor's political crisis. In return for opposition support on key issues, the Government would have agreed to fresh elections in two years. Meanwhile, rebel leader Alfredo Reinado would surrender, only to be freed in a general amnesty for all involved in the 2006 crisis.

That would have been a bad deal for East Timor, reaffirming the culture of impunity and the widespread view that there is "one law for the powerful, another for the rest". Timor has had too many amnesties and too many people have evaded responsibility for their actions. Few of those involved in violence in 2006 have even been prosecuted; not one is actually in detention. At the political level, those identified by a UN inquiry as responsible for the crisis are unashamed, with some retaining senior positions. It is particularly egregious that the army is still commanded by a man who was recommended for prosecution by the UN inquiry for illegal weapons transfer in 2006, and that the army is refusing to hand over four soldiers convicted and sentenced to prison for crimes. Such behaviour suggests the army has learnt the wrong lessons from the Indonesian armed forces.

Timor is not doomed to endless repetitions of violence. But a return to social health will require the Government to tackle seriously the causes of conflict, including reform of the police and army, and insistence on accountability for those responsible for acts of violence. Politicians of all parties and all elements of civil society must work together to overcome the differences that have divided the nation since independence.

John Virgoe is South-East Asia project director at the International Crisis Group.

 
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