In March 2022, Timor-Leste will hold an election for President of the Republic for the period 2022-2027. Due to Timor-Leste’s ongoing political impasse, socio-economic development issues and internal social and political divisions, many observers predict that this election will be critical in Timor-Leste’s history, as it presents an opportunity to resolve some of these long-term problems. Several candidates have announced their intention to run in the election, including current President Lu-Ólo, while others have hinted that they will run but have not yet officially announced their candidacy. A key challenger to Lu-Ólo’s re-election is Lieutenant General and Commander of Falintil-Forca Defeza Timor-Leste (F-FDTL) Lere Anan Timur, who has recently made it clear that he will stand in the election after indicating his intention for several months.
Fundasaun Mahein supports the right of all citizens of Timor-Leste, including former military personnel and civilians, to be involved in political activities and run for public office. However, we are concerned about the implications of the politicisation of security institutions – or the mixing of military responsibilities with personal and party interests – for national security and stability. This article discusses some recent events related to this issue, and their implications for Timor-Leste’s upcoming election.
Article 146 of the RDTL Constitution and Article 63 of the National Defence Law restrict serving F-FDTL members from participating in political parties and making public statements of a political nature. If military officers wish to engage in political activities, they must resign from their military role and enter politics as civilians. These rules are designed to prevent political influence and interventions in the defence sector, thereby ensuring the military’s independence so that it can fulfil its primary mission of guaranteeing territorial integrity and protecting Timor-Leste’s citizens from external threats. In Timor-Leste’s history, there are several cases of former F-FDTL commanders advancing to successful political careers, including Xanana Gusmão, Taur Matan Ruak and Lu-Ólo. However, these figures all resigned from their military office before officially entering the political arena.
On 18 January 2022, news reported that Lieutenant General Lere Anan Timur submitted his retirement letter to the Ministry of Defence, while stating that he will submit his resignation as CEMFA within the next two days. He also declared his intention to stand in the Presidential election. While Fundasaun Mahein welcomes General Lere’s move to resign his position and compete in the election, this is not the first public statement he has made about entering politics. Indeed, this is simply the latest statement of many which have indicated that Lere intends to stand in the 2022 Presidential election.
Moreover, as General Lere’s resignation from F-FDTL has not yet been processed, he remains in his position as head of F-FDTL. Fundasaun Mahein is concerned about the precedent this sets for other military officers. We have written many times about the practice by many elites of ignoring written rules and laws when carrying out their leadership roles. This practice – which we call the ‘Rule of the Deal’ – undermines the Rule of Law, public confidence in state institutions and the battle against corruption.
In addition, some of General Lere’s recent actions risk mixing military and political roles. For example, earlier in January 2022, Lere held a meeting with civil society representatives in the Chefe Estado Maior das Forcas Armadas (CEMFA) official residence in Farol, Dili to discuss his candidacy in the Presidential election. The use of CEMFA’s official residence to discuss his political campaign with members the public suggests that General Lere is willing to use military facilities and his position as CEMFA to further his personal political objectives. FM is concerned that General Lere could continue with such behaviour during the election period, which can damage the credibility of F-FDTL as a politically neutral institution. Furthermore, even though he has announced that he will resign his position as CEMFA, his resignation has not yet taken effect, and will not necessarily be accepted by the Government or the President. General Lere’s declaration of his candidacy before his resignation therefore risks politicising F-FDTL, as he adopts the role of both Presidential candidate and CEMFA at the same time.
An even greater concern is that the politicisation of the military threatens national stability. When high level military officers violate rules and norms without consequence – such as General Lere’s mixing of military and political roles – this sets a negative precedent, as it illustrates that superior officers can take advantage of their positions for political purposes. Fundasaun Mahein has written many times about the danger of politicisation of the security sector and elite impunity. Furthermore, the upcoming elections are extremely sensitive, as there are complex party and personal interests playing out, while there are many deep divisions and problems in our society related to socio-economic development and historical grievances. The last years of political impasse and State of Emergency have further contributed to public dissatisfaction with the Government and many elites. We are therefore worried that in Timor-Leste’s volatile situation, political actions by superior military officers which violate rules can contribute to increased social and political tensions and undermine national stability.
Fundasaun Mahein therefore urges all political and military leaders, including General Lere, to abide by existing laws and rules, and not use their high positions for personal political gain. To avoid setting a negative precedent for the future, military personnel must abide by Laws and the RDTL Constitution which require that military officers avoid political activities while serving in their position. In addition, the Rule of the Deal continues to undermine public confidence in political leaders, as the majority of people understands that rules only apply to ‘small people’, while elites can violate the law with impunity. Due to our political problems, uncertain economic future and growing social inequities, the upcoming election is critical for Timor-Leste’s future, and we call on all leaders to ensure that it proceeds peacefully, legally and democratically. Political leaders must refrain from engaging in inflammatory rhetoric and actions which aim to manipulate public opinion and tensions to ‘bring down’ their opponents. While we understand that this is common in politics, in Timor-Leste’s current situation it is extremely dangerous to take actions which risk provoking national instability and endangering people’s lives.