12 November 2008

TIMOR-LESTE: Security concerns over guns in civilian hands

DILI, 12 November 2008 (IRIN) - Poor management of government weapon stockpiles and an unknown number of small arms in the hands of civilians were potential triggers for violence in the fledgling nation, according to a new report.

Since the 1959 Viqueque rebellion, when anti-imperialist rebels stole Portuguese weapons and launched an unsuccessful coup, civilians have used weapons from government stores to wreak havoc in the tiny nation, according to the Small Arms Survey report, Dealing with the kilat [gun]: an historical overview of small arms availability and control in Timor-Leste.

In recent years, the number of weapons in civilian hands has increased as members of government, the police and military have given them out to allied groups. The number of weapons and ammunition yet to be recovered is unknown, the report stated.

"The combination of simmering mistrust [in communities] with a small number of uncontrolled weapons can create significant insecurity in Timor-Leste," the report's author, security analyst Edward Rees, said.

Personal weapons spark fear

It is unlikely all the weapons leaked from government stores in recent years would ever be fully recovered, the report stated.

Thousands of rounds of ammunition and almost 200 homemade rifles have been handed into authorities in recent months during a weapons amnesty.

Only one automatic weapon was surrendered, and it is possible there are still tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition in the hands of civilians. Many use them to make homemade guns called rakitans, Rees told IRIN.

Rakitans were often used by the pro-autonomy militias who supported the Indonesians in 1999 during the UN referendum on independence. Made from wood and pipes, rakitans can be constructed in less than a day.

"As they can easily explode when fired they often pose as much danger to the user as the intended target," Rees said.

Mismanagement of armouries

Small arms ended up in the hands of civilians largely due to poor control of police and military armouries during the 2006 crisis. The military handed out some 200 weapons to civilians and the police about 60.

Rees said there were no signs that arms control had improved in the police force since 2006.

"There isn't an illicit small arms problem in Timor but there is a problem managing the weapons in government stockpiles," Rees told IRIN.

"Management of weapons by police is significantly worse than in the military," he said.

The acting police commander for Timor-Leste, Afonso de Jesus, told IRIN control of the armouries had improved, but a small number of officers from special units were still breaking the rules.

"Once they finish their duty they should submit [their weapon] to the armory and go home, but some are not obeying the law."

While each police paramilitary unit is supposed to carry a specific model of weapon, Rees told IRIN guns were moving around units in a "seemingly ad-hoc fashion".

Conducting regular audits and sanctioning people who misuse weapons was vital to stem the flow of government guns into the hands of civilians, Rees said.

Small headway in monitoring weapons

In February, a rebel group in possession of police weapons led by former soldier Alfredo Reinado attacked the president and prime minister.

The shooting of President Jose Ramos-Horta in the attack galvanised public and political opinion over the problem of small arms control, Rees said.

A draft gun law recently introduced in parliament caused an uproar as it proposed that the police commander would have sole power to authorise civilians to carry weapons. A revised version was expected to be put before parliament in coming weeks.

"I think it's pretty clear that this government, and the political leadership in general and the community have had enough of guns wandering around the community and villages and would like them put back safely in the armouries," Rees said.

However, history indicated there were no guarantees they would stay there: "Really the question is once you put the gun in the armory, can you manage them," Rees asked. "[Because] historically guns in armouries in Timor have been badly managed."


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