02 October 2011

Timor-Leste: Civil Society and Media Keeping Track of Guns

East Timor Legal News Source: The Geneva Center for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces International Security Sector Advisory Team Community of Practice 09/09/2011 by  Edward Rees - A new twist to SSR in Timor-Leste: local media and NGO challenge the conventional wisdom on illicit weapons, and show that local organizations can achieve a lot with limited funds.

Timor-Leste is slowly but surely moving from a fragile state to a stable one.  One of the sure signs of this is the growing maturity of Timorese civil society as it develops the political will and capacity to confront tough issues.

In 2006 Timor-Leste flirted with a civil war as political maneuvering and a dysfunctional security sector fragmented.  Dozens of people were killed, thousands of properties destroyed and some 10% of the populations became IDPs.  It only came to an end after February 2008 the death of rebel leader Major Alfredo Reinado during the shooting of President Ramos-Horta.  A parallel attack on Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao also failed.

One of the causes of the crisis was the lack of control over weapons held by the security sector, and subsequent distribution of arms to civilians.  Prior to 2006 Timorese civil society was generally very tentative in its approach to confronting problems in the security sector, especially when it came to the sensitive subject of weapons control.  As such while SSR problems were common dinner table subjects of discussion they rarely got out into the open, whereby citizens could have made their feelings known and perhaps constrained the actions of irresponsible actors in the community.

The lack of citizen participation in sensitive and yet important SSR subjects was one of the reasons that the post Indonesian era Timorese security sector was founded on quicksand.

Since 2006 international and national actors have made considerable headway in collecting lost weapons.  However, rumours of illicit weapons have remained throughout, despite assurances by UNPol, the Timorese national police and others that the situation was well under control.

Interestingly, a new local NGO, Fundasaun Mahein, has been suggesting otherwise during the course of its research since it opened its doors in 2009.  It has on several occasions called for weapons audits to be done and for the results to be made public.  However, not much was publically forthcoming about if these proposed activities happened, and what the results were.

That is until 6 September 2011, when Tempo Semanal, a weekly newspaper with a record of investigative journalism, published a story apparently revealing the contents of January 2011 weapons audits on the national police armoury.  These audits have discovered 47 missing weapons.  While these form only about 1% of the total held it is a small country, and between 2006-2008 ex-army rebel Major Alfredo Reinado held the country to ransom with less than 20 weapons.

The Timorese will likely never be able to have all illicit weapons under control, it’s just not possible.  In every country around the world illicit weapons are a public safety concern – as indeed they are in Timor-Leste’s neighbouring states Australia and Indonesia.  It’s a question of managing the problem.

However, Timor-Leste is less than a year away from Presidential and General elections and having civil society play a watchful eye on weapons control is good old fashioned, and home grown, SSR.  Tempo Semanal and Fundasaun Mahein are very cheap to run and are 100% wholly locally owned; something which cannot quite be said about most of our "international interventions".

See also Commentary on the Draft Arms Law in Timor-Leste 

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