12 July 2010

Tense Times in Timor-Leste

The Irrawaddy  By MATT CROOKJULY, 2010 - VOLUME 18 NO.7 Ozorio Leque stands accused of inciting a riot in Dili, the East Timorese capital, on April 28, 2006, when he publicly berated the government before a mob went on the rampage, attacking the government palace. The crisis that followed over the next two months led to 37 deaths and the displacement of 150,000 people.

One of the leaders of Colimau 2000, a resistance group comprising former freedom fighters, youths and farmers, Leque, 29, insists he was acting merely as an activist and that the real perpetrators of the crisis remain untouched. Meanwhile, frustrations among an increasingly disenfranchised youth demographic are now the country’s biggest social challenge.

“Now it’s more calm and more quiet and peaceful than before, but that does not mean that we don’t have conflict among the youths, among the leaders, that could lead to another social conflict in the future, particularly with martial arts groups,” he said.

In the crisis of 2006, a split in the armed forces over promotions led to clashes in the streets of Dili between the army (F-FDTL), police (PNTL) and martial arts groups. Rivalry between the army and the police remains a source of tension, but with an average age of 22 among the population of 1.1 million, the biggest threats to security are evident among the nation’s troubled young.

“This country is composed mostly of youths, but the major challenge that they are facing at the moment is the lack of skills and job opportunities. This is one of the issues that could lead to another social clash,” said Leque, whose trial at Dili District Court was again delayed on June 8.

The Indonesian military’s illegal occupation of Timor-Leste between 1975 and 1999 led to about 200,000 deaths and culminated in the destruction of much of the country’s infrastructure. Shifting a nation’s mentality from resistance to development is key to maintaining stability, Leque said.

“We were coached to use violence against the Indonesian government to achieve our goal of independence or to demonstrate to international societies that we were refusing the Indonesian presence in our country, and most of these youths who were involved in the conflict in 2006 were involved in the violence against Indonesia,” he said.

“It is time for this generation to think for themselves and then their society, their family and their country. It makes no sense when you talk about development if you don’t start from yourself. Human investment is one of the most important issues,” he said. “Creating job opportunities and facilitating youths is one of the priorities in this post-conflict situation.”

But while the streets of Dili are mostly calm, especially compared to 2006, there are still bust-ups between youths in some parts of the city. The government meanwhile has discounted reports that tension between rival martial arts groups is smoldering to the point of destabilizing the country.

Secretary of State Agio Pereira said in a statement that Timor-Leste has one of the lowest crime rates per capita in the world and that reports of serious crime continue to decrease.

But not all crime is reported and the government’s knee-jerk defenses have drawn flak.

Aniceto Neves of the HAK Association, a human rights organization that works with members of martial arts groups, said a balance between sensationalist reporting and defensive posturing is needed.

“The martial arts situation is not something which is dangerous for the security of Timor-Leste,” he said. “It is about social jealousy. It is about social frustration. It is not really affecting the stability of the situation in Timor-Leste.”

Australian gang specialist James Scambary said in his latest report, “Sects, Lies and Videotape,” that fighting, “sporadic but at times intense, sometimes involving over 300 people at a time, is taking place in eight neighborhoods across the city.”

But Neves said “outsiders” have a tendency to exaggerate.

“You cannot consider most places in Dili as dangerous. You cannot consider most of the youths located in different places as dangerous or threatening to others. It is not true. If there is a threat, then the fighting would be very often,” he said.

Nelson Belo, the director of Fundasaun Mahein, a local NGO focused on security sector issues, said Dili is stable, but the problem of unemployment must be addressed or else it could pose a serious threat.

Gainful employment is hard to come by in Timor-Leste, which has only been formally independent since 2002. Subsistence farming is the norm and half the country remains illiterate.

“The problem is language,” Belo said, adding that many Timorese feel unable to get top jobs in the country because they are unable to speak Portuguese, one of Timor-Leste’s official languages, or English.

“Many Timorese only apply for jobs that are insecure,” he said.

“They only apply for jobs as security staff or cleaners, and so many of them are not in the decision level and this creates jealousy.”

The government should review its language policy so that Timorese who are unable to speak Portuguese and English can have the same opportunities as those who can, said Belo.

“Many internationals have good jobs and so people start to feel like they are guests in their own country,” he added.

The key to maintaining stability in Timor-Leste is greater involvement of people at the community level to shape future policies on security and better reflect the needs of the population, he said.

Another significant problem is the lack of coordination between Timor-Leste’s army and police force and the UN Police (UNPOL). The PNTL have been re-assuming policing duties from the UN on a district-by-district basis. To date, six of 13 districts have been handed over.

Cillian Nolan, a Dili-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, reported in February that it remains a “fiction” that the UN is in charge of policing Timor-Leste.

“The reality is a lot murkier. A formal handover of ‘executive policing responsibilities’ is progressing on a district-by-district basis, but response to recent events resembles a collective abdication of responsibility,” he wrote.

Recent allegations of excessive use of force have been leveled at the police over the beating of an unarmed man during a fishing competition and the fatal shooting of an unarmed youth in Dili last year.

In its latest “Security Sector Reform Monitor” for Timor-Leste, the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) warned against the current militarization of the PNTL under police commander Longuinhos Monteiro.

“This situation underscores the need for a review of paramilitary policing and a drastic reduction in the number of PNTL weapons in a country with few illicit firearms.

“Everyday sightings of armed F-FDTL soldiers and PNTL officers, including paramilitary police units with semi-automatic assault rifles and district task force units in riot gear have increased substantially since the 2006 crisis,” according to the CIGI report.

Earlier this year, the police and military launched a six-month joint campaign after unfounded reports surfaced of “ninjas” terrorizing locals in the western districts. The heavy-handed response was widely criticized and cited as Monteiro’s way of justifying the gun-toting Public Order Battalion he created last year.

Monteiro’s show of strength may have had more to do with winning popularity points than hunting ninjas, but the stunt backfired as a torrent of complaints about human rights violations rained in on Monteiro’s men.

Then, in May, reports of a shoot-out between an illegally armed group and police in Ermera District spread through local media and triggered another wave of ninja talk, with Monteiro once again talking up the need for police action.

NGO Fundasaun Mahein on June 7 released a report casting doubt over Monteiro’s claims that there was an illegal group of gun-toting menaces on the loose, citing conflicting police reports and a lack of evidence.

“The alarmism raised by the general commander, Longuinhos Monteiro, is no different from the invention of the ninja situation in Bobonaro and Suai,” the report found.

“The rumors of illegal groups are strongly connected with PNTL’s militarization and have the potential to create competition between PNTL and F-FDTL.”

But for all the criticism, there have been improvements in the country’s police force, said Silas Everett, the country representative of the Asia Foundation in Timor-Leste.

“The police have been undertaking a transformation here, and in terms of community policing, there has been a real growing acceptance of it as an appropriate policing strategy. Officers are going out there and engaging with communities and all of that doesn’t make it into the media,” said Everett.

“In Timor-Leste, stories pick up on the violence, the poverty, and not enough is said about the good things that are happening, especially in regards to the security sector,” he added.

Yet even if security is bolstered, Timor-Leste’s ineffective justice system needs significant investment.

Neves added, “During the crisis in 2006 until present times, there are a number of people who suffered damages, who lost their houses, lost their families, had things stolen­there were people who killed­but what people face now is the absence of justice.”

A lack of qualified prosecutors has led to a backlog of about 5,000 cases at the Prosecutor General’s office.

“There is no responsibility. The ones who are suspected of killing are just free, just going around and walking freely. It makes people frustrated. Very easily they can turn to violence,” he said.

“Social frustrations regarding the justice system are provoking people to be angry with each other and then they are fighting.”

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