The spread of illegal weapons is a sensitive issue which the State must deal with carefully. However, for some politicians, this issue has become a tool of political ‘propaganda’ to use in speeches during election campaigns, because they know that stories about illegal weapons will generate public fear and distract people from bigger issues. This kind of manipulation is extremely dangerous given Timor-Leste’s experiences in the past with rumours, illegal weapons and communal violence. It also reflects what Fundasaun Mahein calls the ‘Rule of the Deal’, which refers to how political elites can violate the law and create public fear without consequences. Another issue which occurred recently in relation to PNTL providing personal security to a political figure illustrates further how the Rule of the Deal continues to operate in Timor-Leste. This article discusses these two related issues, which we hope can persuade political leaders to avoid the politicization of the security sector, which can bring many problems to our fragile state.
Following some political speeches made during the second round of the presidential election campaign, the issue of illegal guns spreading in the community went ‘viral’ on social media, leading to widespread public discussion and panic. Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak confirmed that there are illegal guns within communities, and that the Government confiscated an old ‘bazooka’ weapon which some community members had stored in their home to hand over to security authorities. However, it is still unclear where this old war weapon originated from, such as from the 2006 crisis or if it was bought by someone.
The issue of illegal weapons is nothing new in Timor-Leste – during the 2017 elections, heads of defence and security said that more than one hundred illegal guns had entered Timor-Leste via the land border. It is suspected that these weapons were sold by ex-militia members from Atambua. At that time, the Minister of Defence and Security put out a circular asking people holding illegal weapons to hand them over to security authorities. Unfortunately, from January to December 2018, there were no guns handed over to authorities. Thus, it was concluded that there no illegal guns within communities.
In 2022, during the presidential election campaign the issue of illegal guns was raised by several party leaders. This is a sensitive issue which must be approached carefully due to Timor-Leste’s dark history of conflict, such as the military crisis of 2006 when numerous PNTL weapons went missing and soldiers, police and civilians became victims of violence. Based on FM’s monitoring, some guns which went missing in 2006 were never recovered. An investigation report has revealed which people are responsible but unfortunately, until now the Government has not implemented the report’s recommendations. As we have already done in the past, FM again urges the Government to implement the report’s recommendations, which includes opening disciplinary and criminal processes against people responsible for the disappearance of weapons during the 2006 crisis.
At the same time, due to contradictory statements by security officials there is still much confusion about the status of missing and illegal weapons in Timor-Leste. For example, in 2017, Minister of Defence and Security José Agostinho Sequeira said that around ten PNTL guns which were lost in 2006 have not been recovered. However, according to data mentioned by the PNTL Commander, only seven guns are still missing, including three large guns (automatic rifles) and four Glock pistols. This has created uncertainty among the public regarding how many weapons have not been recovered and also about the process for their recovery. This uncertainty has been further increased by the statement of retired Lieutenant General Lere Anan Timur, who said recently in a press release that there are no illegal weapons within communities. There has also been no clarification about the bazooka which the Prime Minister referred to previously. It is therefore important that security and government officials are consistent and clear with their statements about illegal and missing weapons, rather than making vague and contradictory statements which just create public confusion and fear. The Government also needs to end impunity for those responsible for the spread of illegal weapons, as well as those who create public panic through irresponsible statements about guns.
In addition to these controversies about illegal weapons, another issue which illustrates the security risk caused by ongoing impunity is the politicization and privatization of state security. FM previously drew attention to this issue in our articles related to the “KHUNTO-ization” of PNTL and the politicization of the security sector. It is widely suspected that numerous PNTL members have sworn oaths of allegiance to the KHUNTO political party and are members of martial or ritual arts groups. While the state has not paid sufficient attention to these warnings, as time goes on new facts continue to emerge about the politicization of state security agencies. FM therefore asks the national information and intelligence services to analyse this issue.
A specific issue occurred recently which further illustrates how the culture of the ‘Rule of the Deal’ enables political figures to use state security services in ways that break rules. On 13 April 2022, a suspected member of KORK damaged six houses in Manu Tasi Suku, Ainaro, and beat and intimidated a woman in her home, after a KORK member was injured by stones thrown from nearby by unknown persons. Soon afterwards, the “Maximum Advisor” to the KHUNTO political party, José dos Santos “Naimori”, who is also a grand master martial artist of KORK, went directly to the location where the incident took place. A video was widely shared online showing Naimori accompanied by what appeared to be a civilian escort armed with an automatic rifle. PNTL later confirmed that Naimori’s escort was a PNTL member from the Special Police Unit (UEP) who was deployed to provide Naimori with security at his home after he requested this from the Government following alleged threats against him.
Article 29 of Decree Law No. 09/2009 (Organic Law of PNTL) states that UEP can be assigned “to provide personal security to high level entities”, including both Timorese nationals and those of a foreign state visiting Timor-Leste. However, the law is unclear whether this means that only individuals with official state positions can be provided with such security, or if it includes people who do not hold any state position. While Naimori does not hold any state position, he is a “Maximum Advisor” to KHUNTO, a political party in the VIII Government. Therefore, there needs to be clarification about the legality of the Government’s approval of providing personal security to Naimori by PNTL.
Such an action will also help to prevent the politicization of state security, which is a serious threat to Timor-Leste’s stability and security. FM repeats that state security must not be used by “Ema Bo’ot” as a private or political instrument, as this harms police officers’ ability to serve impartially and professionally. In addition, FM appreciates the Commander’s decision to open a disciplinary investigation into the UEP member accompanying Naimori, as he carried a gun without wearing a uniform which is a breach of PNTL rules.
In conclusion, we ask leaders and political parties to avoid inflammatory and contradictory statements which create public uncertainty and panic. The issue of illegal weapons is a very sensitive in Timor-Leste, and we all know the danger of rumours, mistrust and fear spreading within communities. The politicization of security issues – including the issue of illegal weapons and personal security – is very dangerous for our national stability, and FM is concerned that political figures face no consequences when they use these issues for their personal benefit or protection. Therefore, we ask the Government to review the decision to provide Naimori with personal security, including clarifying the legal justification, take seriously the issue of politicization within security institutions and to implement the recommendations of the investigation into weapons which went missing in 2006, many of which have not been recovered until now.