Major-General Lere Anan Timur, Chief of Staff of the Timorese Defense Force (F-FDTL), has a long history of making controversial political statements. The tendency of the Major-General to wade into politics was recently the target of criticism by CNRT leader and former Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao.
Commander Lere has maintained that he does not involve himself in politics and that his statements are merely expressions of his own personal opinion. However, given that he occupies a public role as the country’s top military commander, any statement coming from the Major-General is inherently political. Because the public is likely to interpret his word as official policy, his statements have often had the effect of spreading panic and confusion. Moreover, some of Lere’s statements have constituted outright threats with the power to influence government decision-making. For example, his public refusal last year to protect MPs were violence to break out during the period of the Seventh Constitutional Government risked creating a climate in which elected officials are unable to act independently for fear of reprisal.
Lere’s statements violate F-FDTL rules prohibiting active military officials from getting involved in politics. These rules are in place in order to protect the integrity of Timor-Leste’s democratic system. In a democracy, the military should be subordinate to the civilian government, not equal to it. It is the job of duly-elected politicians to make decisions and the job of the military simply to implement these decisions. When military officials make overtly political statements, it can undermine confidence that the military will remain objective and professional regardless of who is in power. This ultimately reduces trust in the military as well as the legitimacy of the civilian government.
Upholding a separation of power between military and politics is the best way to prevent a situation like that of present-day Myanmar, in which MPs fear to make decisions independently of the military, or of Indonesia under Suharto, in which military leaders dispense with democracy altogether. It is for this reason that strong democratic governments maintain strict rules on what military personnel can and cannot say. The U.K., for example, has a constitutional convention forbidding military leaders from entering the political arena. The U.S. Department of Defense forbids active-duty military members from endorsing political candidates or parties, and the President has, in the past, dismissed generals for getting involved in politics.
Lere’s statements are likely motivated by a genuine desire to improve his country’s political situation. As a former guerilla commander, Lere is used to getting involved directly in political matters. But in the new era of independence, the focus must be on respecting the rule of law. Timor-Leste is now a member of the international community and its success as a nation will depend on its ability to follow global norms, especially those separating military and political affairs.
Lere should consider also that his actions have consequences beyond his own tenure in office. Future military officials will look to the example of Lere’s leadership, and when he makes political statements, he sets a precedent for others to do the same. Resolving short-term issues by chiming in on politics is not worth the risk of weakening the country’s institutions in the long-term.
Civil society has a role to play in this matter as well. In many cases, Lere’s statements come in response to questions from journalists, who seek out his opinion on important political issues. Journalists should take care to only consult the Major-General on military matters and to refrain from asking questions on topics unrelated to his position. Moreover, the public should be aware that the government, not the F-FDTL, makes policy decisions, and should react with calm to potentially controversial statements.
Lere is a respected figure who could make valuable contributions to Timor-Leste’s political life. If he wishes to become involved in politics, he should follow the example of former F-FDTL Commander Taur Matan Ruak, who stepped down from his position in 2011 before entering as a candidate in the 2012 elections, or of Xanana Gusmao, who resigned in 2000 as Falintil Commander-in-Chief before serving as President. As long as he is in his current position, however, Fundasaun Mahein recommends that Lere refrain from making political statements.