Timor-Leste: Is the Country Back on Track?


Henriette Sachse

Since the outbreak of violence in April and May 2006, the country has experienced a serious political, social and humanitarian crisis resulting in a loss of confidence by the Timorese people in state institutions. Since the new Prime Minister, Josť Ramos Horta - the former Minister of Foreign Affairs - came into office in July, the overall situation has improved and public order has been restored in most parts of the country, due in large measure to the strong presence of international forces. However, the capital Dili remains tense. Sporadic violence has been occurring in some of the IDP (internally displaced persons) camps and about 100,000 people remain displaced.

On 25 August, a new UN Mission for Timor-Leste was established by UN Security Council Resolution 1704. Its main mandate is to restore public security, strengthen key institutions and support all aspects of the 2007 parliamentary and presidential elections. To date about 1,000 of the agreed 1,608 UN Police (UNPol) have arrived in Timor-Leste. Together with about 1,000 Australian troops, which are not included in the UN Mission but remain under Australian command, UNPol has been able to restore public order in most parts of Dili during the last few months.

In October, two important reports on the crisis were released in Timor-Leste. The International Crisis Group report describes how this complex crisis emerged and recommends measures for resolving it, eg, broad security sector reforms, job opportunities for urban youth, a political code of ethics for the 2007 elections and the adoption of the recommendations of the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation especially regarding security issues (www.crisisgroup.org).

The report of the UN-appointed Commission of Inquiry (COI) was released after weeks of rumours about who would be named as being responsible for the April and May incidents and there were fears of violent unrest. Major political leaders called on all political parties, their members and supporters to receive and accept the report and engage in peaceful dialogue. The report states 'the crisis [&] can be explained largely by the fragility of state institutions and the weakness of the rule of law'. It recommended, however, the prosecution of several individuals under domestic law eg, former Ministers of the Interior and Defence who are 'reasonably suspected of participation in serious criminal activity' and further investigations of other high ranking officials including the former Prime Minister Marie Alkatiri (http://www.ohchr.org/english/docs/ColReport-English.pdf). Reactions to the report were mixed with FRETILIN denouncing the allegations against former ministers Lobato and Alkatiri; the latter denounced the report as incomplete.

In mid November, Timorese police (PNTL) and armed forces (F-FDTL) staged a peaceful parade in Dili marking the resumption of their services after months of screening processes. They showed their willingness to work together despite tensions that led to open confrontation in May. This came just a few days after hundreds of youth (including members of rival gangs) commemorated the Santa Cruz Massacre (12 November 1991) and held a rally to promote peace and unity. However, gang fights between several youth groups erupted shortly afterwards in the District of Ermera leaving several people dead.

Although there are promising signs of the country being put back on track, great challenges are still ahead for the Horta government. The situation regarding the IDP needs immediate attention due to the imminent start of the wet season. However, trauma-related stress, the still fragile security situation and unresolved property issues will make it unlikely that all IDPs return home in the near future. Furthermore, electoral law needs to pass through parliament soon so that preparations for the 2007 elections can get underway. And most important of all, the peoples' confidence must be restored in national institutions - not least in the government and parliament. Both institutions need to improve their performance during the next few months. Their calls for peace and harmony seem to be being heard, but that has been the easiest part. Now people expect answers for Timor-Leste's systemic problems like poverty, unemployment and a weak justice system.

WATCHPOINT: The performance of the government and parliament over the next few months leading to the 2007 elections will be crucial in terms of the nation's future.


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