21 November 2008

Lack of government participation stymies East Timor stability

Earth Times 21/11/2008 Dili - Two years after the police and military collapsed and months of anarchy drove more than 100,000 people into displacement camps, East Timor has yet to fix the underlying causes of the instability, and, given the poor government turnout at a stability retreat Friday, it would seem there is still little political will to address the issues. Only a handful of government officials bothered attending the government-sponsored retreat that was designed to look for long-term solutions to the problems threatening the stability of Asia's newest nation.

Two of the biggest issues on the agenda - what to do about the continuing problems of security and land rights in East Timor - were the flashpoints in its 2006 civil unrest.

East Timor was torn apart by violence and arson two years ago, which left dozens dead. Violence flared again in February this year as rebel soldiers attacked Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao and President Jose Ramos-Horta. Both survived, and since the attacks, there has been no new unrest, yet the causes of East Timor's instability continue to loom large, and leaders in the capital, Dili, said they are worried.

"Existing tensions, if unaddressed, can undermine the hard-fought gains of the past year," Gusmao warned Friday in his opening statement.

Gusmao said his government was ready to tackle "the root causes of the crisis" although a quick head count told a different story: Only two ministers attended the retreat, joined by a handful of civil servants.

The prime minister said at one point that no ministry or agency could work alone to solve the country's needs, and he closed his opening address by begging participants to stay.

"In light of the high importance afforded by the government to these issues, I expect that all participants remain for the entirety of the retreat and actively contribute to the discussions," Gusmao said.

But 10 minutes later, the prime minister himself ducked out, and by noon, one minister was left with a handful of directors, largely lost in a sea of foreign faces. So, with local input largely overwhelmed, the search for solutions began.

The one-day retreat, called Working Together For Stability, was sponsored by the Ministry for Social Solidarity, the agency largely responsible for social issues, but since the crisis, its biggest successes have been largely cosmetic.

This year, it has cleared the majority of displacement camps by handing out thousands of dollars in cash and bags of rice to homeless families. Even the ministry admitted that cash and rice won't guarantee stability, but longer-term solutions are rare.

Consider security reform. In 2006, the police and military both disintegrated along regional lines into armed, factionalized bands. Civilian militias, illegally armed to try to control the situation, further confused the deadly morass.

Today, security is largely dependent on outside influences. New Zealand and Australian troops still patrol the nation while the police force is managed by the United Nations.

Yet a foreign security presence is hardly a sustainable solution, and experts said a Timorese security plan is needed.

In July, the UN Development Programme gave more than 1 million dollars and two advisers to a security-sector reform panel tasked with recommending improvements in security policy, but in four months, the panel of five has met only twice. There is also serious concern because one of the members is alleged to have helped cause the 2006 crisis.

Panel member Roque Rodrigues was the defence minister in the period leading up to the 2006 crisis, and the UN's own Commission of Inquiry alleged Rodrigues knew and approved of the illegal handover of guns to the militias. Yet Rodrigues, far from ever going to court, was picked by East Timor's government to work with the United Nations on security policy.

Finne Reske-Neilsen, the UN Development Programme's resident representative, defended Rodrigues' placement on the security panel.

"If there is to be security-sector reform, then it needs to involve all the relevant players," he said. "There needs to be that broad body."

Then there's the land issue. After the breakdown of law and order in 2006, a rash of arson swept across Dili as entire neighborhoods, rent by regional divisions, burned out families they claimed had no right to live there. Legally, they didn't have a right since no land law had been passed, there were no land titles and thus no one had any legal claim to their home.

But two years on, there is still no land law, and the government hasn't created any new neighborhoods to house the displaced. So with cash in hand and nowhere else to go, many of the displaced families have returned to their old neighborhoods, hopeful the government would figure out solutions to long-standing problems.


Image: East Timor's Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao.

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