Timor-Leste’s Presidential election for the period 2022-2027 will be fundamental to resolving the political impasse which has threatened Timor-Leste’s national security and socio-economic development. Timor-Leste’s destiny for the next thirty years must be secured through strategic and dynamic political decisions, especially in the areas of security, defence and foreign policy, which can guarantee equitable development and security for all our citizens.
As Head of State and the Armed Forces, the President of the Republic (PR) is responsible for cultivating foreign relations which secure Timor-Leste’s position in the world and enable us to participate in regional development in a sustainable and equitable way. This means that candidates for the upcoming Presidential election must bring an extensive understanding of foreign policy, national security and defence issues, as well as a commitment to extending and deepening our relationships with neighbouring and partner countries, including ASEAN. In addition, PR must understand geopolitical issues which bring risks and opportunities to Timor-Leste’s security and development. Fundasaun Mahein (FM) therefore believes that presidential candidates should prioritise these policies in their program for 2022-2027. In this article, FM discusses three key concerns which we see as major priorities for the new PR: 1. Guaranteeing national stability and security 2. Guaranteeing the State’s transparent and democratic functioning 3. Foreign relations, diplomacy and strategic policy.
FM has written frequently about the consequences for Timor-Leste’s stability from failing to pay adequate attention to the security sector. Internal conflict between various groups and parties have brought many implications for the security and defence sectors in our country. The PR has a duty to guarantee national unity and state sovereignty according to Article 86 of the RDTL Constitution related to the role of the Supreme Council on Defence and Security. PR should also guarantee that the security institutions promote peace and stability, including by ensuring that these institutions are adequately informed and trained about their role. Unfortunately, the capacities and behaviour of state security actors have frequently not adhered to the constitutional vision of a democratic state. Furthermore, Article 86 of RDTL’s Constitution states that the PR is responsible for guaranteeing stability and ensuring national security. As the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, PR must create a mechanism to prevent internal and external conflicts, including geopolitical disputes and internal insecurity.
A major internal security issue is the question of Martial Arts Groups (MAGs), which are highly influential in Timorese society. The problem of politicization of the security sector continues to occur in state institutions such as the Ministry of Interior and influences the growth and relationship of MAGs within the state and society. Much of the domestic insecurity during the last ten years seen and felt by Timorese people relates to ongoing conflict and feuds between MAGs. While FM and many others have asked the Government to deal with this issue, MAGs continue to recruit many youths and increase their activities. Although there are no concrete data to confirm this, some observers say that the number of MAG members continues to increase every year. An important duty of the PR is to promote Timor-Leste’s art and culture, which can facilitate peace and security in the country, while promoting Timor-Leste’s image abroad, and can become a useful resource for developing the tourism sector. MAGs can be considered as “art” or “sport” groups which can also be involved in international competitions and domestic displays, instead of creating problems and instability.
Another major security concern PNTL’s relationship with communities. Today, many PNTL members threaten communities’ security through indiscipline and acts of brutality. Many public statements have illustrated how public confidence in PNTL has worn thin. As Head of State, PR must continue to coordinate with and oversee the Government, particularly the Ministry of Interior, to ensure that PNTL fulfils its duty to guarantee national stability.
Sustainable national stability can only be achieved when the PR engages in dialogue with other state institutions, especially security institutions, while strengthening relationships with the Prime Minister and Government. Achieving the vision of “bringing Timor to the world and the world to Timor” depends on the Head of State’s commitment, capacity and character to lead in a transformative and non-partisan way. Thus, the PR must strive to collaborate with the Government, National Parliament and Courts to strengthen the values of the Democratic Republic, while also becoming a symbol of national unity and moderation to promote dialogue, equality and justice within the state and across society. PR also must guarantee the transparent and democratic functioning of the State, which requires a strategic political approach which connects with each institution and adopts an open leadership style which can achieve balance and harmony between institutions.
Regarding diplomacy and strategic policy with other countries with whom we share strategic interests, Timor-Leste’s past experience shows minimal involvement of the PR with such foreign policies. Timor-Leste’s previous PRs frequently failed to participate in important foreign meetings and international forums which are relevant to Timor-Leste’s experiences and interests. Thus, in addition to domestic security, it is necessary for PR to have sufficient capacity and motivation to promote Timor-Leste’s national interests in the region and around the world. Diplomatic strategy to promote Timor-Leste at the international level must be clearly defined and integrated with national development plans and goals.
Furthermore, the PR must strengthen international relations and lead diplomatic activities not only with countries with historical ties to Timor-Leste but also countries which have strategic importance for our future security and economic development. An important opportunity is this area is strengthening cooperation with ASEAN and other Asian countries such as China, Japan and Korea, to improve our economy, infrastructure, defence and security sector. For Timor-Leste to become a member of ASEAN, our diplomatic staff must be adequately prepared to participate in hundreds of meetings each year. Moreover, in addition to our limited human resources and infrastructure, Timor-Leste’s security sector capacity is an obstacle for our accession to ASEAN. PR must therefore come with a rigorous and contextualized plan to ensure that the Government invests adequately in human resources, infrastructure and ensuring Timor-Leste’s rules and regulations are adapted to international standards.
The ASEAN Regional Forum is an important pillar of security and defence for ASEAN members. Timor-Leste became involved in 2005, and most discussions have focused on regional security issues. Until today, Timor-Leste’s participation in regional business and diplomacy discussions has been very limited. Moreover, the Asia-Pacific will be a significant region for industrial and commercial growth between now and 2030, but Timor-Leste’s human resources are not yet sufficiently developed to take advantage of this economic growth. Thus, FM is concerned about Timor-Leste’s future security and socio-economic conditions if PR does not invest sufficient energy and resources into this area.
The future PR must have the capacity to promote and take advantage of relationships between Timor-Leste and other countries based on historical relations, geography and shared strategic economic and security interests. PR should therefore identify countries or groups of countries which can benefit Timor-Leste’s stability, security and national development. At the same time, PR must understand regional and global security and geopolitical risks related to great power competition. As a small country, Timor-Leste is in danger of falling victim to external interests and power games, as has happened in the past.
In addition, Indonesia and Australia are neighbouring countries which have shared historical experiences with Timor-Leste for a long time, despite also having been involved in crimes and negative behaviour towards Timor-Leste’s people in the past. There has been some public discussion about establishing a “free pass” for Timorese and Indonesian citizens at the land border, because of the strong social and cultural ties between the people who live in this area. Many Timorese also go to seek economic and educational opportunities in Australia, Portugal, England and Ireland. Therefore, FM asks the new PR to consider ways to ensure that these Timorese emigrants become a resource for Timor-Leste, so that they can contribute to national development.
Timor-Leste is at a critical juncture in its history and faces economic insecurity and uncertain defence and security policies. The new PR must ensure economic security in the country through a strategic external engagement plan which can take advantage of the growth in the international market and security cooperation with external partners. PR candidates must also have the ambition to promote human resources in key areas such as infrastructure, industry, education and security. Also the new PR must promote active dialogue with the security and defence institutions to secure national stability through improving the performance of PNTL and F-FDTL. PR must also work to create a mechanism to resolve the issue of MAGs. Finally, to fulfil the idea of “bringing Timor to the world and the world to Timor”, PR must lead diplomatic activities related to economic development, security cooperation and external relations, including Timor-Leste’s accession to ASEAN and relations with neighbouring countries and the Asia-Pacific.