Timor-Leste: Restoring Order in Timor Leste: The Challenges for the Ramos-Horta Government


James Cotton

The new government of Timor-Leste, led by José Ramos-Horta, was formed on 10 July. The government must deliver for the people of Timor-Leste immediate relief for those displaced by the violence of the last two months while not neglecting the tasks of reconstruction and of the restoration of international confidence in the country's economic and political viability.

For these issues to be successfully addressed, however, problems of order must be confronted and in this area there are no easy solutions. Gang violence and the exploitation of regional rivalries can only be contained by a force that has local respect and local knowledge. The use of the police force (PNTL) for partisan political ends by some members of the former administration, and then its disintegration during the May troubles, have left the country without the immediate guarantors of public order. Meanwhile, the deep divisions in the armed forces (F-FDTL) make it unlikely that a viable military can be reconstructed.

An international presence will be required for some time to manage the restoration of order, but past experience indicates that the attention span of the United Nations may be insufficient for the task. Moreover, police training is probably better tackled through bilateral arrangements as mentors from necessarily variable forms of jurisdiction are unlikely to impart an agreed and clear method of procedure. Whatever approach is taken, an international presence will be required for some time to come.

Integral to the restoration of order is an accounting for its collapse in 2006, which will undoubtedly embroil the former Interior Minister and probably the former Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri, as well. For the time being, the task of establishing the facts has been given to a UN sponsored Special Commission of Inquiry, but at some point the government must take responsibility and its actions may open deep political fissures. Ramos-Horta's polite remarks at his inauguration regarding his predecessor may need to be revised.

One of the major impediments to progress in Timor-Leste is the state's language policy. Privileging the Portuguese language deprived the fledgling state of the skills and services (and for some the loyalties) of many of its best-educated members, while placing a burden on the legal system which it was unable to carry. With many of the new cabinet hold-overs from the Lusophone Alkatiri administration, it is doubtful if the government will have the political will to revise this policy, but without doing so, the gulf between generations will remain.

Ramos-Horta will be in power only until the next elections, due in May 2007. Until the recent troubles the FRETILIN party was hegemonic, but the failure of many of its leading veterans and allies will undoubtedly have a strong impact on its reputation with the public. Just at the time Timor-Leste requires strong and continuous governmental institutions, its party system appears set to fracture.

Perhaps the biggest problem to emerge from this crisis has been the relationship between Timor-Leste and Australia. Australian troops constrained what might otherwise have degenerated into a full-scale civil war, and they were committed only after all factions in the government requested their presence. However, with the removal of Mari Alkatiri as Prime Minister, rumours have spread in the country that they were participants in or even the instigators of a coup d'état. For example, when Interior Minister Rogério Lobato was arrested, it was widely but incorrectly believed that he had been detained by Australian forces. In the longer term Australia remains the only country with the resources and interest to act as the lender of last resort if disorder returns, yet the perception that Canberra has taken sides in a domestic dispute may hinder future Australian efforts. In addition to the direct costs of Operation Astute (which may total $100 million), the Australian government is currently providing $8 million in humanitarian aid, and funding a 57-member police contingent. After the events of the past two months, Australia's involvement in Timor-Leste's attempts to build viable government structures is bound to be protracted and thus further expenditure can be expected.

WATCHPOINT: The approach taken by the new Ramos-Horta government towards the restoration of law and order may be taken as an indicator of its willingness and ability to tackle the crucial issues facing Timor-Leste.


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