Fundasaun Mahein calls on Timor-Leste’s next government to take actions against police corruption. Corruption degrades the legitimacy of the National Police of Timor-Leste (PNTL) in citizens’ eyes, generating distrust that undermines cooperation between police officers and ordinary people. Given the seriousness of this problem, the new government should improve legislation and implementation in order to initiate a national campaign against corruption in the PNTL.
Police corruption is staggeringly common in Timor-Leste. FM talked with a “bola guling” (popular gambling game) storeowner who said that the police extorted him every day. According to this store owner, PNTL officers regularly demand money and threaten to detain him if he does not comply. An FM monitor observed four police cars stopping by the street and receiving cash payments from people they had previously intimidated. An incident last week at Taibesi market—in which police officers set up an unauthorized checkpoint, confiscated motorbikes, and then demanded under-the-table cash payments to release them—further exemplifies the frequency of graft in Timor-Leste. These stories illustrate how corruption has become an open secret in Timor-Leste. Dishonest police officers blatantly extort people because they are confident they will never be held accountable for their actions.
Previous news reports reveal that corruption has been common in the security forces for years. In 2014, PNTL officers were caught stealing fuel intended for official use only. In 2013, security personnel in the Migration Services Department were condemned for issuing visas in exchange for bribes. Many reports have circulated about PNTL officers using traffic stops as an opportunity to extort money from people. Even the use of state cars for private purposes represents a common act of petty corruption that undermines the PNTL’s professionalism. Disturbingly, during discussions with police officers FM researchers heard numerous allegations that PNTL commanders have participated in these crimes. This indicates that corruption has pervaded even the upper ranks of the security forces.
Corruption has a corrosive effect both on the institutions of the police and on the mindset of ordinary citizens. Among the police force, routine corruption causes officers to lose any desire to serve the Timorese people. Instead, they view their jobs as opportunities to exploit the weak and the powerless. For example, in the store owner’s story described above, the PNTL officers were pretending to be on patrol while actually extorting small businesses for personal gain. Such hypocrisy destroys the PNTL’s self-discipline, as even honest officers become demoralized.
Petty corruption also corrodes ordinary citizens’ confidence in the rule of law. When people see police officers committing crimes, they stop trusting or respecting them. Indeed, they no longer respect the laws that the police are supposed to uphold. If corruption becomes completely normalized, people will not hesitate to violate the law whenever it benefits them. Therefore, although petty corruption involves relatively small amounts of cash, it has devastating consequences for the rule of law and citizens’ trust in their government.
Due to the staggering extent of this problem, the next government must undertake a massive campaign to combat corruption. Timor-Leste’s entire nation leadership must join together to unequivocally condemn such behavior as a shameful betrayal of the Timorese people. The National Parliament should also discuss ways to strengthen anti-corruption legislation and to improve its implementation. Only such a concerted, nationwide effort can improve the self-discipline within the PNTL and build trust between ordinary people and the state.