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May 31, 2010 | Commentary

Having experienced centuries of oppressive Portuguese colonial rule and 24 years in the predatory grip of Suharto’s politico-military apparatus, Timor-Leste is one of the world’s newest (it became independent in 2002) and smallest (population of 1.2 million) countries.  However, like all countries it is now bestowed with the powers and responsibilities of sovereignty. This comes with a dose of ego as well, just as in other countries.  In order to understand this ego it is advised that people brush up on this little half-island state’s long and complicated history. Failure to do so will result in shoddy SSR.  But that is for another blog entry.

As for SSR in Timor-Leste: Despite the myriad challenges it faces in this area, there is much to suggest it has had a bellyful of foreigners in this sector, and is busy going about doing things its own way. In fact, last week Timor-Leste took a giant step forward in the development of its security sector—by itself—with hardly a UN SSR expert or a bi-lateral adviser in sight.

On May 23, 2010 Timor-Leste took possession of two Type-62 Shanghai Class Patrol boats from the Chinese firm Poly Technology to replace its aging and much smaller Portuguese Albatross class boats. In 2008, when it made the decision to buy the boats and signed the contract, the Government of Timor-Leste made a point of not consulting with or informing bilateral partners and the United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT). It is was Timor-Leste’s first major unilateral act of SSR as part of fulfilling its vision for the future of its defence force, the FALINTIL-FDTL, as articulated in its Force 2020 plan. Plans are well advanced to rebuild the Hera port to the east of Dili, to accommodate the new warships, as well as to construct a naval supply base on the south coast of the island.

Maintenance of these vessels will surely be a challenge.  In fact, poor maintenance played a role in the 2006 crisis. When called upon to help resist attempts by the leader of an illegal armed group to overwhelm the defence headquarters in western Dili, the commander of the naval component had to respond that one vessel was inoperable, and the other could only travel the 15km distance in reverse—which it did.  It then successfully assisted in repelling the assault on the defence force headquarters.

However, the Timorese leadership is very aware that their maritime approaches hold the patrimony of the state in the form of large oil and gas reserves, an unregulated fishery, and as an avenue for criminality in terms of the smuggling of people, drugs and even illicit weapons. As such building a more robust maritime capacity is a national priority.  The recent spat with Australia and Woodside over the Greater Sunrise gas field in the Timor Sea raises the stakes when it comes to sea control.  Furthermore, Timor-Leste currently draws over 90 percent of its budget from a Petroleum Fund which relies entirely on receipts from Timor Sea oil fields, primarily Bayu Undan, which is operated by ConocoPhilips.

Once it became public that Timorese were going to go it alone in the restructuring of its defence force, giving it a proper maritime capacity, some bi-lateral and UN parties were almost apoplectic with “concern.”  However, had they been reading, listening to, or watching national media they would have picked up very strong indications of the Timorese leadership’s displeasure with ever-meddling foreigners in the security sector.  This was confirmed in 2009 when in a concerted media blitz Julio Tomas Pinto, Secretary of State for Defence, blasted the UN and other international efforts to “reform” the Timorese security sector.

This is not to suggest that there is no role for foreigners in this area, but the Timorese have elected to, and are adept at, cherry picking what they want and letting other SSR efforts wither and die on the vine. This is largely due to the UNMIT’s dogged, and inept, insistence on pursuing its primary SSR efforts.  Firstly, a much hyped comprehensive review of the security sector in which a dozen or more UN officials have been beavering away on for at least 2 years has produced almost no result. This effort has chewed up millions of donor dollars and cost millions more UN peacekeeping dollars in staff and consultancies. They say it will be completed this year, likely with a whimper as opposed to a crescendo of applause (although UNMIT Public Information can make even the worst effort look good).  Secondly, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao has all but told the United Nations and the international community to stop interfering with the government’s police development programs. The United Nations Police are roundly criticized as having done little of use in the last 3 years, and are likely bequeathing to the country a police service as problematic as when it fractured in 2006.  Certainly the police service is just as fond of its paramilitary units in 2010 as it was in 2006.

Needless to say the Timorese are very polite about all of this most of the time, and foreigners are equally polite in pretending that everything is hunky dory between them; especially as it pertains to SSR.

As one of the architects of the SSR review during the July 2006 DPKO Technical Assessment Mission to establish UNMIT, this blogger should clearly accept some blame.  However, as a leading member of the Timorese leadership told this blogger in 2007, “look we are friends, but you should realise it’s just not going to happen, we just don’t want it.”  This message has been given to the UN time and time again.  It should have listened, learned its lesson and realized that it is pointless to knock on a brick wall expecting it to open up like a door.

The arrival of the new Timorese Navy should alert people to a new era in Timorese security sector reform.  The UN has missed its chance to be useful.  Time people publicly acknowledged the truth for a change.