05 November 2008

East Timor tries to buy some time

Asia Times Online 24 Oct 2008 - By Matt Crook DILI - The streets of Dili are quiet - for now. Clashes between rival gangs have subsided and thousands have finally returned to their homes after fleeing the fighting that erupted in East Timor in 2006. But behind the veneer of calm, the entrenched conflicts that sparked that street violence simmer.

The opposition Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN) is engaged in a war of words with East Timor's Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao. For weeks, FRETILIN members have promised - without announcing a date - to hold a "peace march" in Dili, which many fear could instigate new clashes. Fueling the fire, Gusmao threatened on Monday to arrest any anti-government protesters who joined such a march.

United Nations troops are preparing to pull out of East Timor, but there are rising concerns that the new island country's national police force, the Policia Nacional de Timor-Leste (PNTL), is woefully ill-prepared to take over their security responsibilities, despite a series of UN training programs.

East Timor is once again at a potential tipping point, with fears that political friction, police factionalism, an east-west divide, police-military animosity and high unemployment could lead to a repeat of the 2006 violence, when 37 people were killed and up to 150,000 fled their homes.

East Timor's history has been plagued with infighting, which until 1999 was directed mainly at Indonesian occupiers. FRETILIN is still irked: after winning the popular vote in the 2007 parliamentary election the party watched rival Jose Ramos-Horta form a coalition government led by the second placing party, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT).

FRETILIN secretary general Mari Alkatiri said in an interview, "We never recognize the government because we won the election and the president of the parliament decided to invite the second-most-voted party to form the government. We want to have a government that can rule our country without corruption, without nepotism and with competency."

The purpose of the FRETILIN-proposed peace march is to push for new elections, as well as to "show clearly who is who in this country and who has the most support from the people and to prove that this government has no legitimacy," Alkatiri said.

FRETILIN's has little to gain should its proposed march devolve into anarchy, but there are other worrisome factors that could lead to new rounds of violence. Much rides on the PNTL's ability to handle a demonstration and the possibility of riots, analysts say. PNTL Operational Commander Mateus Fernandes said in an interview that his men are "100% ready to hold security".

The PNTL, which has 3,194 officers and about 500 based in Dili, has found it difficult to handle even minor public disturbances. At a student protest in June, PNTL officers fired tear gas and made 51 arrests. At a job fair held earlier this month, warning shots were fired as a group of jobseekers broke through a barricade. Later, at a pop concert on October 15, PNTL officers struggled to deal with a heaving crowd of young men, occasionally beating them back with batons.

The PNTL was established in 2002 by the UN, at the time the new country's transitional governing authority. Supporting the PNTL now are 2,600 UN Police (UNPOL) and International Stabilization Force (ISF) troops stationed throughout the country. But even with that aid and armed presence, the PTNL has been strained to maintain law and order during volatile situations.

Some security experts point to alleged shortcomings of the UN's training of the PNTL, which aimed to build it rapidly into a credible, professional force. The UN has a mandate until mid-February, although the handover of power to local forces is unlikely to take place until mid-2009.

There is an alphabet soup of factions within the PNTL, including the UIR, URP, UPF, SIP, CSP, NID, each wearing a different uniform and resulting in parallel policing with different police groups operating independently. Some believe divisions between these factions would make it difficult for the PNTL to launch a cohesive response to major future disturbances.

"PNTL do their own thing. Some of them work with UNPOL, some of them don't. Even with UNPOL here, there were still weeks when it was complete anarchy," said a security expert from a non-governmental organization based in Dili. "The PNTL and the military have pointed weapons at UNPOL on many occasions and told them to get lost. Once those things start to happen, you can't go back and reverse it."

East-west divide
The problems don't end there, however. Tensions have recently intensified in Dili with the circulation of an anonymous leaflet threatening violence against the government if someone from the eastern region of the country is appointed as the new police commander in November.

The leaflet also airs perennial complaints about discrimination in the government structure favoring those who hail from the east side of the country over those from the west. Nobody has claimed responsibility for the letter and the government has been cagey about its relevance. State Secretary for Security Francisco Gutteres said, "I don't believe the leaflet is a concern, although we still have no idea who wrote it."

The east-west regional divide was highlighted in 2006 when Brigadier-General Taur Matan Ruak fired 600 mostly western soldiers, known as the Petitioners, after they abandoned their posts to protest against alleged discrimination in rank promotions. The controversial move was known to be supported by Alkatiri.

That pique played a large part in the violence that later erupted, where clashes between the police, army, youth groups and others spilled onto the streets and international peacekeepers were called on to help restore order. Ramos-Horta and Gusmao were at the time both engaged in a political battle with Alkatiri and both played the Petitioner's grievances to their political advantage, including through organized protests and a nationally televised address criticizing the military's move.

East Timor's armed forces, the Falintil-Forcas de Defesa de Timor Leste (F-FDTL), now comprises soldiers mostly from the country's eastern region, where Ruak is known to have considerable support. At the same time, he faces possible prosecution for his role in arming civilians during the 2006 riots.

A UN-commissioned report found that Ruak provided weapons to former freedom fighters that had been part of the Forcas Armadas da Libertacao Nacional de Timor-Leste (Falintil), FRETILIN's former military wing. Whether Ruak will ever be prosecuted is up in the air, with fears that if there were tension between the army and the police could lead to new clashes.

Two years later, the grievances of the Petitioners have yet to be resolved. Those who were fired by the government have received lump-sum payoffs, which have kept them quiet, although the issue of discrimination was never addressed. Meanwhile, military members who stayed loyal to their posts are left disillusioned that the soldiers they see as traitors have received handsome payouts.
Ramos-Horta's and Gusmao's government has increasingly taken to paying people in a bid to smooth tensions. For instance, displaced citizens have received funds in the form of government-provided recovery packages, usually between $500 and $4,500 per family. However, deals still need to be made with the people who have been squatting in the houses of the displaced on their return.
Just as crucial to Dili's stability are the Timorese gangs and martial arts groups that played a significant role in the 2006 violence. Unemployment in Dili is staggering, with more than 40% for the 20-24 year-old demographic jobless. Their prospects are constrained by low education levels, as less than 50% of the country's children make it through six years of learning. The education gap is open to manipulation and youthful frustrations have previously been expressed through violence.

Peace negotiations between rivals gangs and the introduction of a PNTL special task force in 2007 has so far held a tenuous peace, but with such a large group of disenfranchised youth, the issues that drove them to the streets two years ago are still in place. It's unclear whether FRETILIN has the support or funds to stage a mass protest to mobilize these groups to its cause, but with so much else bubbling beneath the surface, East Timor's future as a stable, independent nation is still very much in doubt.

Matt Crook is a East Timor-based freelance journalist. He may be reached at writer@whatismatt.com.

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