Testing Times for East Timor as Polls Loom

Jakarta Globe – September 12, 2011

Dili. East Timor’s fragile stability will be tested in coming months as the country’s political and business elite maneuver ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections in 2012.

Some foreign businessmen are already talking quietly about quitting the country during the election build–up, amid widely held fears of turmoil and possible violence.

Festering anger over unpunished crimes committed during the Indonesian occupation, land disputes, corruption and rivalries in the security forces are simmering beneath the otherwise sleepy surface of East Timor’s seaside capital.

Underlying everything is the potential for instability that stalks almost all energy–rich developing countries with billions of dollars in oil revenues accumulating in government coffers.

The IMF calls East Timor the “most oil–dependent economy in the world”, with petroleum income accounting for around 95 percent of total government revenue in 2009.

“The reality is we are a post–conflict country, we’ve got a large chunk of young people who are unemployed… and a lot of conflict as a result of our history,” opposition Fretilin party spokesman Jose Teixeira said.

“I think we’ve taken some steps forward but we haven’t done that well.”

The United Nations handed policing responsibilities to local police in March, more than a decade after UN–backed troops entered the country following East Timor’s historic 1999 vote to split from Indonesia.

There are still around 1,200 UN police in East Timor, or Timor–Leste as it is formally known, in addition to about 500 Australian–led troops under a separate security mandate.

The UN mission is due to wind up after presidential polls slated for April and a parliamentary vote in June, with Libya looming as the world body’s next likely nation–building project.

But analysts say East Timor’s police are still incapable of dealing with even minor unrest, and accuse them of having links to shadowy martial arts gangs responsible for frequent outbreaks of violence.

Observers saw echoes of 2006 — when rioting and factional fighting brought the country to the brink of civil war — in gang–related violence last month in Zumalai, on the southern coast.

Mobs of martial arts gang members set fire to dozens of homes as they rampaged through the town after one of their number, a police officer and former independence guerrilla, was murdered.

Gang leaders in Dili denied involvement in organised violence, but security analyst Nelson Belo said there was ample evidence that political factions were using martial arts groups as muscle.

“In your country if something happens you immediately call the police. In East Timor you call ‘big brother’, which means the gang,” Belo told AFP.

“There are a lot of ‘big brothers’ in the community. The police will come after everything has happened to pick up the dead bodies or evacuate the victims.”

He said a culture of impunity had developed in the country of around a million people under the leadership of President Jose Ramos–Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, who have put reconciliation before justice.

As a result, East Timorese who joined pro–Indonesian militias during the bloodshed surrounding the independence referendum have started returning from exile in the knowledge they will not be prosecuted for their crimes.

Belo describes the returnee issue as a “time bomb” and fears the election could act as a detonator.

“We should be preparing for the domestic violence that we face every day, but we haven’t,” he said, criticizing the police for “acting as a paramilitary with big machine guns” instead of engaging with the community.

Deputy Prime Minister Jose Luis Guterres — a possible presidential candidate — acknowledged the country faced many problems, but said fears of a repeat of the 2006 crisis were overblown.

“Even Darwin has a crime rate higher than Timor, and Dili is more safe than many capitals around the world,” he said, referring to the northern Australian city nearest to Dili.

The government has introduced pensions for veterans of the independence struggle so that no former fighters feel marginalised or aggrieved.

“You have to have stability in a holistic way, you can’t just look at policing,” he said.

Gutteres and Teixeira come from different sides of politics but both agreed the main parties had little to gain from stirring up trouble ahead of the polls.

“Everybody understands that … if you love this country and you love our people, we can’t afford another crisis,” Teixeira said.

“If we have another … crisis, that’s it, it’s the end. It’s failed state status. But we didn’t fall off that brink in 2006 and I don’t think we will now.”


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