A New Decade and a New Timor-Leste

A New Decade and a New Timor-Leste post thumbnail image

Photo: Bega Valley Advocates For Timor-Leste

2019 has been an important year for Timor-Leste. In August, we celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the Popular Referendum, which shepherded in the independence for which we had fought for nearly a quarter century; meanwhile, the United Nations named the g7+—the Timorese-led initiative for fragile states—as a permanent member. In September, Dili became the first Catholic archdiocese in Timor-Leste. Just his past month, for the first time in Timor-Leste’s history, the Prime Minister withdrew the state budget proposal. Even amidst the frustrations of political deadlock, Timor-Leste finally received a median line maritime boundary with Australia and has moved closer to ASEAN membership, all while watching our history reflected in the West Papuan protests. It has been a year of glancing between past and future.

In the spirit of using our history to inform our future, Fundasaun Mahein would like to offer what we see as the greatest concerns—and the greatest opportunities—in Timor-Leste’s security sector: namely, the Rule of the Deal over the Rule of Law, expectations of violence, and no national security policy.

First, the Rule of the Deal. Much of the struggle for independence from Indonesia relied upon clandestine networks and guerrilla warfare; we are a country that learned to survive using secrets and violence, and by trusting individuals over institutions. Our past is responsible for the high value that our citizens place on freedom, on fair and independent elections, and on being a part of the state-building process—things that caused the Economist to rank Timor-Leste as the most democratic country in Southeast Asia in 2018. However, it also means that we still struggle with issues such as transparency and accountability, with decisions made through informal discussion before being brought into formal discourse. On the one hand, at times this can make the government very accessible to citizens and civil society organizations, and means that, with the right support, considerable progress on single issues can be made very quickly. However, these habits are disastrous for impunity and accountability. It is not unusual, for instance, for the National Police and the Ombudsmen meant to oversee their work to discuss and negotiate cases, in direct violation of the law. Moreover, the national cult of leadership means that politics and society are often dominated by the egos of our leaders rather than the laws of the state—leading, for instance, to a political deadlock in 2017 that led to an early election, whose results have yet to be implemented, or to the annual sport of creating a national budget that is then largely treated as a thoughtful suggestion.

One of the greatest challenges to encouraging the Rule of Law in Timor is that the language of the government and judiciary is Portuguese, leaving the vast majority to Timorese citizens unable to understand their own laws. This makes transparency incredibly difficult at even the most basic of levels: not only are there no clear channels for citizens to access information, but that information may only be in a language that is incomprehensible. While there have been scattered attempts to address this—FM, for instance, undertook a huge project to translate all security-related laws into Tetun—systemic change will remain impossible for as long as the language of the government is not the language of the people that it is meant to serve.

The issue of who has access to government and security institutions is not only one of language, however. In the years since independence, Timor-Leste has made significant strides in promoting diversity and inclusion. Our former prime minister was Muslim in an overwhelmingly Catholic country; there is growing awareness and concern over disability inclusion and LGBTQ issues; two of our Police District Commissioners are female; and our parity laws mean that we have one of the highest percentages of women in parliament in the entire Asia-Pacific region. However, participation should not be confused with equality. Many female parliamentarians, for instance, have expressed frustrations that they are still prevented from participating fully in the political process, in spite of their position; there is a very real question if, in practical terms, women in the security sector truly have a voice. Go to any meeting in Timor and look at the talk time of men versus women, and the problem should be immediately obvious.

Even at home, the numbers are sobering: 47% of Timorese women have been assaulted by a partner, and a report released this year at the United Nations which found that 87% of children face violence at home. However, the lack of anything close to female parity in most security institutions mean that it is an uphill battle for even such troubling figures to be prioritized as pressing security concerns.

One consequence of this lack of diversity is that, while our security institutions and organizations can be very quick to respond when incidents occur, we have very little in place in terms of prevention. For instance, the assault of Nina Diaz, a disabled woman in Díli who was recently found dead in murky circumstances, has generated a great deal of public and political focus; what it highlighted most starkly, however, was the routine violence experienced by the disabled community, encouraged by a near total lack of safeguards. Potentially, the inclusion of more diverse voices within the security sector would allow to it to be more proactive, rather than largely reactive. However, here too there is an opportunity: because of Timor’s politics of leadership and the value that it places on dialogue, there is space for strong leaders who are willing to champion causes to make tremendous strides in a very short period of time: for instance, in just two years, the LGBTQ Pride Parade has gone from nonexistence to explosive growth.

FM is also troubled by the expectation of solving problems with violence that is pervasive in Timor-Leste’s security sector. We fought for twenty-four years for freedom: our national heroes are men in military fatigues. Even twenty years after independence, this is a hard habit to break—especially when our political leaders are nearly all former fighters themselves. The reverberations of this cascade across all levels of society, from unnecessary amounts of government spending redirected to defense (instead of the stated priorities of education, health, and water), to the use of force by police officers to address personal disputes. As FM has earlier reported, the government even approved the purchase of arms for the forensic police force, PSIK, which now has bullets but languishes without laboratory equipment or forensic training—and in so doing, potentially denying crucial evidence to Timorese courts and justice to victims. Even the 2006 Crisis, when the police, military, and general public dissolved into violence, is symptomatic of this tendency to see solutions through the barrel of the gun.

Our final concern is that Timor-Leste still lacks a national security policy; while we do have security laws, they are not unpinned by a guiding policy. Among other implications—including allowing the priorities of individual politicians to govern the direction of security institutions—a lack of a national security policy risks leaving Timor-Leste slow to respond to new opportunities and threats. For example, how should we approach the new risks and benefits of ASEAN? There are also many Timorese refugees still in Indonesia from independence—how should we respond to this? What is the role of the military in our country? Do we prioritize justice or reconciliation for crimes against humanity? These are important questions that are currently undefined; so with the new year, and the new decade, FM recommends that writing a national security policy as a major priority.

Even so, all of these challenges also represent our country’s greatest opportunities. The creation of a national security policy, for instance, is a marvelous chance for the Timorese people to decide what they want their security sector to look like and what they want their country to be. Civilian voices must be heard, and for this to happen, civil society organizations in Timor must work together. While the Rule of the Deal is one of our main challenges, it also means that the Timorese security sector and political system are very flexible: there is is great capacity for change. However, we must also focus on creating strong institutions, rather than just individually sympathetic leaders, so that the landscape of security does not change so substantially with each election.

Another interlinked necessity is encouraging the next generation of activists and political leaders. The next crop of new young leaders will not remember the struggle for independence, but they have grown up under an explosive growth in education, leaving them better educated, more technologically savvy, and more cosmopolitan than any before. They are a bright, capable pool of potential for Timor-Leste, but one less optimistic about its future and that of the country than the previous generation. Particularly as many young Timorese are leaving for Europe and Australia, one of our greatest challenges is how to keep these young people engaged and politically active—and, as we have seen with the rise of martial arts violence, not doing so comes with a steep price. Identifying and fostering young leaders, then, is critical to security in Timor.

What FM sees in 2020, and in the decade to come, is hope. In less than twenty years of sovereignty, our nation has made tremendous strides against all odds, and FM knows that we will continue to do so. And so, we at FM wish you a Boas Festa Natal and a Happy New Year. 2020, parabens!

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