01 October 2008

Escalating tensions among East Timor police

ABC Radio Australia 01/10/2008 - Tensions are brewing in East Timor's national police force as the government works to weed out corruption and rehabilitate the force. The administration in Dili hopes it can eventually farewell the 1,500 UN police, who've taken responsibility for internal security for the past two years. But a series of incidents in recent weeks suggest efforts on police reform may not be going as smoothly as the government would wish.

Presenter: Stephanie March Mari Alkatiri, former prime minister and leader of Fretilin opposition party; International Crisis Group analyst Anna Powles; State Secretary for Security Francisco Gutteres

MARCH: Last week members of East Timor's Police Task Force Unit threatened to strike in protest against pay issues. Their anger led to a confrontation at police headquarters. The prosecutor general Longinious Montiero also confirmed that the interim head of the police, Alfonso de Jesus, has been questioned over disciplinary issues.

But the most worrying element for civil society groups in the series of drams surrounding the local police, is an undated, unsigned flyer being passed around Dili about the government's plan to appoint a new commander in November. An excerpt from it is read here by an actor:

LETTER EXCERPT: There is a lot of discrimination in the government structure, as the majority are from the east. If a person is appointed to commander from east we will make a petition in our institution and also organize people from districts to against the government, and we will demand the president call early elections.

MARCH: It was words like those that ignited the crisis of 2006 and tore the nation's military and police apart along regional lines - loro mono from the west, and loro sae from the east. Mari Alkatiri was prime minister in the lead up to the 2006 crisis, and is now the president of the opposition party, Fretilin.

ALKATIRI: This is the repetition of 2006, even in 2006 they started with this kind of thing, the pamphlets and letters accusing, dividing the people into loro mono and loro sae.

MARCH: State Secretary for Security Francisco Gutteres and a United Nations official believe members within the police force are responsible for the flyer. Anna Powles from the International Crisis Group says it's "deeply concerning".

POWLES: I think the government and international community should certainly be cognisant of this and take it seriously because as we have seen before if this sense of discrimination and resentment is left to fester it can cause serious problems down the track

MARCH: The UN police say they are taking the matter seriously and trying to confirm who wrote and distributed it. State Secretary for Security Francisco Gutteres.

GUTTERES: I am not really concerned about it. This letter comes from someone who is concerned about the program that this government is trying to do about the rank adjustment. Maybe some people, when it comes to rank adjustment, they may be affected.

MARCH: Francisco Gutteres says past promotions in the force - known as the PNTL - have often been influenced by nepotism or corruption. The government is now establishing clear criteria for moving up the ranks.

GUTTERES: Many people that probably feel by having these new rules, new systems, they may be affected. They may say, 'well in the past I was undisciplined, I have not much capacity, I became a leader of PNTL because of my closeness to someone, and if this system is established means I will have not have many chance of being promoted.'

MARCH: He plans to appoint foreign police officers to the promotions board that will ultimately choose the new commander to give legitimacy to the controversial position.

GUTTERES: I am quite sure that more than 80 of the PNTL members are quite supportive of these new measures and are not trapped in this kind of issues.

MARCH: While both the UN and government are working to rehabilitate and restructure the politicized and factionalised PNTL, Anna Powles from the International Crisis Group says serious issues still remain.

POWLES: Certainly the major problems seem to be ill-discipline, a lack of professionalism, issues around unity in the force because of the number of different units in the force, issues over pay and moral.

MARCH: She says changes to the force - such as the rank adjustment process- are necessary but are controversial given the current environment.

POWLES: All processes like that have the potential to be both positive and negative, they can be potentially divisive if not handled carefully. Hopefully they will solve issues but rehabilitation of PNTL is extremely complex task and if not handled correctly is going to create resentment among certain parties.

MARCH: The UN said earlier this year it will hand responsibility for internal security to local forces by early next year, but remain in East Timor in a supporting role.

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