On November 9, 2018, several hundred students associated with Movimentu Universitario Timor-Leste (MUTL) organized a demonstration in front of Dili’s Parliamentary Palace. The protests were a reaction to Parliament’s decision to buy new cars for the 48 recently-elected Members of Parliament (MPs), while selling off old Toyota Prados to departing MPs at the artificially low price of $8,000 per car. According to a series of interviews conducted by Fundasaun Mahein (FM), student activists see the new purchases as a form of “legal corruption” in which political elites misappropriate public funds for their private benefit.
Rather than hearing out the students’ complaints, the government responded to the peaceful demonstrations with force. FM has obtained videos that show members of Bataliun Ordem Publika (BOP) releasing tear gas into the crowd and using physical force to disperse the protesters. BOP and PNTL Task Force arrested and detained 22 students, though it was unclear what laws they had broken. In an interview with FM, one of the arrested students, “NS”, alleges that a member of Task Force handcuffed him, threw him to the ground, and punched and kicked him repeatedly in the stomach before transporting him to a cell.
FM’s stance is that Parliament’s decision to purchase new cars for incoming MPs is wasteful and unnecessary. Given that the government purchased Prados only five years previously, the existing cars likely remained in good working condition and could have been passed on to the new MPs. The fact that these cars were instead sold to departing MPs strongly suggests that there was no issue with them and that their replacement was unnecessary. At around $30,000 per car, the new purchases amount to $1.5 million in total. This money could have been better spent addressing any of Timor-Leste’s pressing social issues, especially given the government’s budgetary shortfall. In interviews, student activists said that the purchases reinforced their perception that MPs prioritize their own interests over those of the public. FM recommends that MPs rethink their decision to buy themselves new cars and, in general, refrain from misusing taxpayer dollars for projects that do not serve the public good.
FM is also deeply concerned by reports of police using violence and intimidation against anti-corruption protesters, including arresting and physically assaulting members of the student movement. The right to peacefully assemble is enshrined in the Timorese Constitution and is an important part of a functioning democracy. FM reminds police and government officials that this country owes its existence to the vocal activism of students and ordinary citizens. Forceful responses to student demonstrations recall a painful time in Timor-Leste’s history, one that many Timorese have struggled to move past. FM urges PNTL to revise its rules of engagement for future protests in order to strike a balance between maintaining public safety and allowing citizens to freely express themselves on issues that matter to the community.
Moreover, FM continues to call for a systematic overhaul of Task Force and BOP, which has a long history of engaging in brutality against unarmed civilians and peaceful protesters. The government must provide re-training for Task Force and BOP to bring them in line with PNTL’s commitment to community policing. As part of this effort, the government must reduce the role of the National Republican Guard (GNR), a Portuguese paramilitary group with a documented record of brutality, in providing training and capacity building for the Timorese police. Task Force and BOP’s heavy-handedness will persist so long as training emphasizes an adversarial relationship with the people.
Timorese people are well aware that repressing protesters does not make them go away, but instead hardens their resolve. “NS”, one of the detained students, stated that he and other students would continue to risk physical harm to speak out against perceived corruption. Instead of silencing these voices, FM urges government officials to listen carefully to what they have to say and to address their concerns.