18 September 2009

Urban conflict in East Timor

September 18th, 2009 Guest Author: James Scambary, Swinburne University - It has been almost two years now since the end of the intense communal conflict that engulfed East Timor between 2006 and 2007. The events of this period proved a salutary experience for a range of nation building enterprises, not least of which were security and peace-building.

There has been considerable soul searching over the events of that two year period. We now know that East Timor is not the unified, homogenous society forged in the firmament of the resistance, as previously thought. We now know that the national police force is highly factionalised and manifestly unprepared to resume active duty. It is also recognised that if attempts are not made to sort out the mess of property law, stimulate the economy, and create some jobs, there will be a similar conflagration in the near future.

This is largely where the lesson ended. Most analysis of this period, curiously, focuses on the events of April to June 2006. This is reflected in the much quoted casualty figures of 37 fatalities, which was the tally after the bloodletting between the police and army ended in May 2006. Some reports don’t even mention the violence of 2007 at all, and yet the conflict ran for another 18 months. According to UNMIT estimates, in 2007, over 100 people died in the January to October period alone. This gap in understanding of that conflict is highly revealing of the gap in knowledge about East Timorese society itself.

There were two distinct phases in the conflict between two different sets of antagonists. While the first phase in 2006 featured broad regional and ethno-linguistic divisions, the second phase was characterised by conflict between villages and families, the most basic unit of East Timorese society. There are a number of implications for peace-keeping and peace-building as a consequence.

The patterns of conflict of this second phase, for example, showed a strong symmetry between gang or martial arts group and family membership. In East Timor, a village is more or less an extended family. While this nexus is strongest in the rural areas, it is also highly prevalent in the city. This overlapping nature of martial arts group or gang membership with kinship networks makes mediation and policing highly complicated, also making it difficult to distinguish between a gang conflict or a communal conflict. In many cases it is both.

Also, East Timorese urban neighbourhoods, especially in the densely packed areas to the west of the city with high rural migrant populations, are a complex patchwork of often competing ethno-linguistic groups. Traditional leaders are habitually included in mediation processes, but some may have authority over only a small area or group, or no authority at all. Circular rural urban population movements mean that such urban centres are fluid and dynamic, and that authority is sometimes ephemeral at best. In many cases, real traditional authority actually resides in a group’s rural district of origin.

Sometimes there is even confusion about who is being mediated, or which dispute is being mediated. Some village heads have commented that in some instances, villages were mediated who were not even in conflict. Some also observed that while the issues surrounding the east/west conflict of 2006 were mediated (at least temporarily) issues arising from the 2007 conflict had not been. Therefore, some communities have accepted internally displaced families back from the first phase, but not from the second phase. As many as 45 per cent of returnees in one area of Dili have faced continued conflict as a consequence.

There are implications for policing too. International police have often described their frustration in locating conflict sites and discerning between victims and perpetrators. Most agreed that more detailed local knowledge would enable them to be more efficient and discerning in their responses. Unfortunately, as they admit, with such high rotation of international police and army personnel, valuable institutional knowledge is not always retained.

The situation is stable now, but only if stability can be measured as lack of conflict. If civil society and the security forces are to be more effective in their response next time around, there will need to be a deeper ethnographic or evidence based understanding of the cultural and social dynamics of East Timorese society, especially of contemporary urban settings. Current state-centric and donor-driven approaches to policing, justice and development have also so far proven inadequate. During the conflict of 2006-7, 1300 international security forces and an army of international aid workers did little more than stem the level of violence, but could not stop it. That it ended was a decision taken by East Timorese themselves. Therefore, the solution must ultimately come from the community itself.

Listen to the audio of James’ presentation held on August 31 at ANU. http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/podcasts/Patterns_of_urban_conflict_in_East_Timor.mp3

James Scambary is a Research Fellow at the Swinburne Institute of Social Research.


Timor-Leste Land Law and Policy

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