Timor-Leste: The Armed Crisis in Timor-Leste - It's Not All About Reinado

2007

Stephanie Koorey

Throughout its 24 year independence struggle, the Timor-Leste's revolutionary fighters did it alone. Although with an abundance of moral support and advocacy from non-government agencies and support groups abroad, the liberation movement is unique in its failure to garner any external supplier of weaponry for its armed struggle. Despite the perceived "justness" of Timor-Leste's claim for independence, no patron ever supplied the goods for it to fight its "just war".

This extraordinary situation is close to being reversed. Not by a new revolutionary movement, but through the deliberate arming of personal militias by political figures. Timor-Leste's bloodied route to independence is in danger of being tainted by a new enemy - the state which arms against itself.

When Indonesia invaded Timor-Leste in December 1975, both the invader and ensuing conflict were largely ignored by regional and global powers. The Western states feared a "Cuba in the Pacific", and despite a clamouring from concerned citizens, in neighbouring Australia and far-flung United Kingdom, no Western country ever covertly shipped arms into the increasingly beleaguered independence fighters of Falintil - the Forcas Armadas de Libertacao Nacional de Timor-Leste, the National Liberation Armed Forces of Timor-Leste.

Despite such paranoia, no Communist state did either. And rumours that there were shipments from Mozambique and Uzi machine guns sent to Falintil remain unsubstantiated. Neither unscrupulous arms brokers nor kindred spirits got weapons to Falintil. So, for decades, the revolutionary fighters were armed with what they had stolen from the Portuguese colonial armouries in 1975, what they dug up from cached WWII weapons, and what they bought and captured from the Indonesian security forces.

Attempts to ship weapons into Timor failed and post-conflict Timor-Leste was stunningly weapons-free. The militias were mostly disarmed by the intervention force, or took weapons with them back into West Timor. Falintil won praise for its self-discipline, agreeing to cantonment, and ultimately metamorphosing into the Timor-Leste Defence Force.

Commentators have warned of the political and social divisions in Timor-Leste particularly since April 2006. Yet a chilling revelation is that at least one of these factions may have been arming in expectation of a future firefight against the other, and with high-powered military-style weaponry. These supplies generated brief media interest. They have been purchased, and some have been gifted by at least one friendly country. Under export guidelines many states, and private arms companies, transfer weaponry to other states for their legitimate defence requirements. Timor-Leste was a fledgling democracy so it was probably, and just might be reasonably assumed, that such transfers were sent in good faith.

In March of this year, former Interior Minister, Rogerio Lobato, was sentenced to more than seven years prison for illegally distributing weapons originally supplied to special units in the police, to groups of civilians, and former Falintil, some of whom subsequently used their weapons in armed attacks and criminal acts in the disturbances of mid-2006. Unproven accusations were also made against former Prime Minister Alkitiri in the distribution of the weapons, and, a year earlier, questions of nepotism and transparency arose when it was revealed his brother was the government arms broker.

Weapons were also taken from Army stocks and issued to civilians, former Falintil combatants and former police, and also used illegally during the unrest. The former Minister for Defence, Roque Rodrigues, has since resigned over the incidents.

The heavy arming of the special units in the Police force appears to have been underway since 2002. While ostensibly to counter increasing attacks by resurgent Militias in the border areas, the numbers of weapons and their suitability for military operations, not policing ones, was in 2005 referred to as both "confusing" and "sinister". The taking of weapons from Defence stocks may have been more opportunistic, although possibly not unanticipated.

Even so, an unspecified number of former security sector weapons remain unaccounted for; cached and hidden by both politically-affiliated groups and opportunistic criminal ones, and possibly scared civilians. After Timor-Leste's long and poorly-armed struggle for Independence, it is horribly ironic that Timor may face an armed crisis that emanates from its own political figures and public servants.

WATCHPOINT: How will the intervention forces in Timor-Leste effectively disarm what may now be politically-affiliated and criminalizing gangs?

 

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