05 November 2008

An Historical Perspective on Arms in Timor-Leste

Timor-Leste Armed Violence Assessment

Issue Brief 1: An Historical Perspective on Arms in Timor-Leste

Six years after independence and two years after the ‘Krize’, the role of small arms in Timor-Leste society has not yet received a thorough accounting. Such weapons have played a decisive role in shaping repressive tactics of the former colonial powers and countermeasures by resistance movements, through to contemporary criminal violence. Today, against a backdrop of weak institutions, lingering tension, and poorly enforced legislation and arms control norms, military and civilian-style arms continue to trigger interpersonal and collective violence. The issue of missing small arms from state stocks has generated media headlines every week for the last six months. Stories associated with the distribution of arms to civilians are no less controversial.

The gradual militarization of Timor-Leste is a legacy of the country’s recent history. The modest numbers of arms flowing into the country during the Portuguese colonial period stand in stark contrast to the progressive arming of Timorese society in the 1970s, which lasted until 1999. Although there are in fact comparatively few small arms and light weapons in the country, sophisticated military-style weapons grew more common during the period of Indonesian occupation (1975–99), with a modest, but nevertheless significant, number held by the Timorese resistance.

In tracing out a chronology of arms availability in Timor-Leste, this Issue Brief finds that the availability and motivations associated with arms acquisition and use evolved over time. During the Portuguese and Indonesian era, arms were used primarily as an instrument of repression by colonial forces, while armed groups used them to further resistance and insurrection. In the past decade, arms enabled and exacerbated communal violence, particularly in 1999 and 2006. But Timor-Leste is hardly awash with guns. While existing public and private holdings are poorly registered and accounted for, there are comparatively few manufactured arms in the country; however, craft weapons do present a clear challenge. Nevertheless, as the 2006 crisis readily demonstrated, even a small number of illicit small arms can generate a disproportionately large impact. Specifically, this Issue Brief finds the following:

* The presence or rapid influx of small arms into Timorese society has triggered periodic, but nevertheless widespread, violence.

* Since the 1970s, and especially in the 1990s, weapons leakage from state stockpiles and the intentional arming of civilians by security forces have left a pool of weapons that are unlikely ever to be completely recovered.

* Although small arms and light weapons availability is not new, high levels of militarization in civilian society is a comparatively new phenomenon.

* The application of small arms has changed over time—from repression and insurrection to household defence, gangrelated predation, and for intimidation.

* New transfers of arms are comparatively rare, but existing public stockpiles and patronage-led diffusion constitutes the largest source of new weapons in the country.

Critically, during the 2006 crisis, the Timor- Leste government lost control of much of its armoury. A history of poor security management of existing stockpiles of weapons and ammunition combined with the largely uncontrolled distribution of arms to civilian groups before the crisis increased tensions and eventually hastened the onset of acute violence. As such, a comparatively small number of modern and colonial-era weapons remain dispersed among a wide range of civilian groups (i.e. gangs, martial arts groups, and veterans movements). Likewise, there are potentially significant challenges related to ammunition and grenade availability following outbursts of violence in 1999 and 2006. Managing existing stocks and controlling illicit arms presents a major challenge, but such efforts are likely to yield important improvements in safety and security.


The type and availability of small arms is entering a qualitatively new phase in Timor- Leste. While no longer present in large numbers, weapons are dispersed among the civilian population in an uncontrolled fashion. Despite the country’s small size, the combination of simmering mistrust with a small number of uncontrolled weapons can create significant insecurity in Timor- Leste. Furthermore, ill-advised government reactions to real and perceived (illegal) weapons holdings can spur even more formal and informal procurement. Despite the seemingly successful execution of Operation Halibur, the security sector continues to suffer from persistent questions associated with its institutional and programmatic capacity and legitimacy. It also continues to act as a potential conduit of arms from legal to illegal weapons holders.

While this Issue Brief has described the role of small arms in the recent phases of Timorese history, a number of questions remain unanswered. For example, the dynamics of state procurement require more investigation. Given the chronic weaknesses in routine stockpile management, it is questionable whether stockpiles should be expanded even more in the absence of appropriate control and verification systems. Appropriate civilian oversight over the procurement of weapons can serve to inhibit excessive and inappropriate procurement.95 Likewise, there are lingering concerns over ammunition and munitions stocks: a surfeit of ammunition in vulnerable communities may spur on the craft-made arms industry.

In the context of the current debate over the draft Gun Law, it is important to note that it may be wise for the government to address issues relating to the counting and controlling of its own guns before it proposes to further disperse weapons into the hands of authorised’ civilians. Ultimately, a domestic debate on a distinctly ‘Timorese’ approach to controlling arms is much needed. This is an especially important conversation given that the international community is set to withdraw from the country in the next 12–24 months. While Timorese solutions will undoubtedly be more sustainable than international ones, they also require steady and reliable political leadership to prevent the recurrence of previous mistakes.

Issue Brief: An Historical Perspective on Arms in Timor-Leste Excerpts - Full 12-page document at http://www.timor-leste-violence.org/pdfs/Issue-Brief-1-English-TLAVA-Austcare-SAS.pdf

No comments: