Twelve years after independence, Timor-Leste currently experiences relative political stability. Even after the pull-out of UN armed personnel at the end of 2012, no serious incidents troubled the country as in 2006 during the violent clashes between members of the police and the military, or the almost deadly assaults on the Timorese President and Prime Minister in 2008.
However, this stability should not be misinterpreted. Indeed the relative calm is mainly a result of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão’s “buying peace” policy. Based on Timor-Leste’s petrol revenue, the Gusmão administration was able to appease warring political camps and particular interests of veterans who had fought against Indonesia’s occupation of Timor-Leste. But, behind the façade of economic growth and political stability, grave human security issues have opened up. The short-lived and politically motivated outbreak of violence by paid demonstrators during the parliamentary elections in 2012 as well as the recent campaigns by the Timorese police and military against organized veteran groups point to a possible future scenario of discord in a country, in which more than 50 percent of the population are unemployed.
During the July 2012 clashes, the Policía Nacional de Timor-Leste (PNTL) – the country’s local police force – could resort to backup support from the United Nations Police (UNPOL) and the local military, the FALINTIL-Forças Armadas da Libertação Nacional de Timor-Leste (F-FDTL). Nevertheless, the PNTL has not been tested in managing large scale violence since the departure of UNPOL. Furthermore, the PNTL only enjoys limited trust from the Timorese population in its ability to act as a professional force and to maintain public security.
Ultimately, since its inception by UNPOL in 2001, the PNTL’s reputation has been tarnished due to the fact that more than a third of police recruits formerly served in the Indonesian police (POLRI) during that country’s occupation of Timor-Leste. Overall, about 400 former POLRI-members were recruited into the new police of independent Timor-Leste, and due to their experience within POLRI, they had a shortened training period of only four weeks. In contrast, non-POLRI recruits who lacked prior knowledge of policing were obliged to pass through three months basic training and additional mentored training by UNPOL of three to six months. Despite heavy criticism from local NGOs and some local politicians on the recruitment of former POLRI-members, UNPOL held to its policy and even placed several former POLRI-officers into leading positions of the PNTL.
Concerning the training and managing of the Timorese police force, the respective UN-missions’ (UN Transitional Administration in East Timor and UN Mission of Support in East Timor) tasks proved to be a double burden for UNPOL. While UN police had to provide public security, they also had to simultaneously train the Timorese PNTL-recruits. Furthermore, international policemen without proper knowledge of the local society, language, and culture, as well as inadequate didactic experience proved to be an obstacle to the establishment of a stable and effective police institution.
As a consequence, institutional and logistical issues of the emerging Timorese police force were not sufficiently tackled by the United Nations until the official handover of responsibility to the Timorese authorities in 2005. By the time of the handover, the Timorese police force was everything else but a constitutionally minded and democratically controlled security actor. The crisis of 2006 thus displayed the deep political frictions within Timorese society as well as the fragile and politicized condition of its security sector.
The outburst of violence in Timor-Leste launched another UN mission (United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste) to reform the dysfunctional Timorese security sector. Again, the United Nations Police was tasked with training and mentoring Timor-Leste’s police. However, before the actual training, all members of the PNTL had to undergo a thorough vetting process to identify officers who were involved in human rights violations during the 2006 clashes. Although vetting procedures took place and several PNTL officers were suspected by UNPOL of human rights violations and murder, the Timorese government ultimately intervened and abandoned any legal actions due to a proclaimed reconciliation policy.
Other bilateral donors also engage in police training, particularly the Australian Timor-Leste Police Development Program (TLPDP) and the Portuguese Gendarmerie Guarda Nacional Republicana (GNR), both of which conduct training courses at the police academy in Dili. In recent years, the GNR even drafted the police curriculum and offered basic police training courses for the new PNTL recruits whereas the Australian TLPDP focuses at capacity building, especially at the management level, and proactive policing. In this vein, New Zealand in cooperation with the Asia Foundation as well as Japan and Singapore, aim to implement a Community Policing approach involving proactive policing and intensified communication between the police and population.
However, this policing approach appears to be antithetical to the prevailing police practices of the PNTL. Several reports indicate that the PNTL’s interaction with the population is still based on repression and brutality. Reported incidents of police’s abuse of authority towards civilians and the misuse of service weapons while off duty indicate the police service’s lack of understanding in how to deal with the public. Moreover, internal oversight bodies are either incapable or unwilling to strictly sanction the respective officer’s actions.
The loss of trust in the police, however, has offered alternative actors to get involved in security provision. Particularly the F-FDTL and its military police were repeatedly deployed by the Timorese government to provide internal security. Also members of the armed forces were increasingly contacted by citizens to deal with cases of domestic violence, burglary, and assault. In fact, the Timorese armed forces developed a profile for internal security operations since 2007. Recurring deployments of the F-FDTL, officially dubbed as “Comando Conjunto” (joint commands between the PNTL and the F-FDTL), however raise the question about the overall ability of the PNTL to provide public security as standalone force in Timor-Leste.
Whereas the joint commands were aimed first and foremost to mitigate the deeply-rooted frictions between the police and the military, the F-FDTL construed their recent assignment for internal deployment more broadly and regularly assumed public policing in the main cities, which have led to occasional conflicts between members of the police and the military over operational areas. Furthermore, the enacted 2010 laws on internal/national security did not settle the ambiguous state of affairs over areas of responsibility for the police and the military.
In light of these developments, it seems unlikely that the Timorese police will forcefully strengthen their community policing profile and relinquish the more robust policing tasks to the military. Rather, the increased building up of GNR-trained police special units aims at assuring the police’s position in all areas of public security against intrusion from the F-FDTL.
Yet another looming issue might also affect the future developments of the Timorese security sector: the announced but yet to be dated resignation of the incumbent Prime Minister Gusmão. It was Gusmão who merged the Ministry of Defence with the Ministry of State Security in 2007 as a reaction to the devastating clashes between the police and the military in 2006. By assuming the ministerial post of the Ministry of Defence and Security besides the position as Prime Minister, Gusmão managed – also due to his reconciliation policy and extensive networks – to ease the tensions between the police and the military. Therefore, it remains to be seen how stable the political institutions and patterns of civil-military relations are in Timor-Leste after Gusmão finally leaves office.
Deniz Kocak is a Research Affiliate at Freie University Berlin.