Observations on F-FDTL’s Transformation Day: “Time to Professionalise, Time to Modernise”

Observations on F-FDTL’s Transformation Day: “Time to Professionalise, Time to Modernise” post thumbnail image

Photo : F-FDTL

The theme of this year’s celebration of FALINTIL’s transformation to F-FDTL is “Time to Professionalise, Time to Modernise.” As a civil society organisation dedicated to promoting human rights principles and good governance within the security sector, Fundasaun Mahein (FM) strongly supports this sentiment. Indeed, we have argued since our establishment in 2009 that a modern, professional military is a key component of a democratic state under the rule of law. With this article, FM wishes to share our reflections on the issues of modernisation and professionalism within F-FDTL, including commenting on the speech delivered by F-FDTL General Chief of Staff (CEMFA) on 2 February, 2024, at the F-FDTL Headquarters in Fatuhada, Dili.

CEMFA described some of the areas where F-FDTL is making progress, such as supporting international peacekeeping missions, construction of basic infrastructure, medical support programs, documentation of military history and support for veterans. CEMFA also highlighted the fact that gender equality within F-FDTL is advancing, marked by the promotion of the first woman to receive the position of captain within Timor-Leste’s military. CEMFA then discussed some of the challenges F-FDTL faces in achieving modernisation and professionalisation, including inadequate accommodation, deficiencies in the military health system and outdated information technology. He recognised the importance of support from Timor-Leste’s international partners in developing human resources, infrastructure and equipment, and stressed the need for continued international cooperation in today’s challenging security situation.

During his speech, CEMFA stated that “there can be no strong democracy without a professional military.” FM strongly agrees with this statement, as we believe that that professionalism in the military is essential to protect against politicisation. As we have written previously, FM sees the politicisation of state institutions as a grave threat to Timor-Leste’s democracy and governance. Politicisation of the armed forces directly threatens democracy by transforming military power into a tool which can be used to further personal or partisan objectives, rather than guaranteeing the sovereignty and security of the Democratic Republic as laid out in the RDTL Constitution.

FM also agrees with CEMFA’s point about the importance of cooperation with international partners, including both continued support for developing F-FDTL’s internal capacities, and enhanced regional cooperation to combat unconventional and transnational threats. FM has stated consistently that Timor-Leste must maintain its current relationships while expanding cooperation with other partners. In this way, Timor-Leste can contribute to regional security cooperation efforts while gaining maximum benefits from our international partnerships.

Regarding the challenges, FM accepts that infrastructure, technology and equipment are important for facilitating F-FDTL’s modernisation and professionalisation. However, modernisation and professionalisation are complex issues which require more than simply procuring new technologies. FM believes that the key to achieving modernisation and professionalism within the armed forces lies in the transformation of the people who make up the institution of F-FDTL – in other words, the institution’s human resources.

As FM’s sees it, this process will be driven by several factors: first, international cooperation will continue to be central to human resource development, including training programs on languages, human rights and rules of warfare, exposure to various doctrines and practices, and participation in international peacekeeping missions. The latter, particularly, can serve as an excellent example of “Learning by Doing,” whereby F-FDTL members will gain real-world experience of working alongside modernised, professional armed forces of other UN member states.

Another key factor, and directly related to human resource development, will be the transformation of internal attitudes and practices. CEMFA alluded to this in his discussion about gender equality within F-FDTL. FM applauds this development and supports all efforts at increasing genuine equality and inclusion within state institutions. We note that PNTL has already promoted several women to become commanders at the municipal level, and hope that F-FDTL can follow a similar path. At the same time, we caution that gender equality initiatives must be substantive rather than tokenistic. In other words, they should focus on enhancing the quality of individual (female) officers and supporting their genuine participation in decision making, and not simply aim to increase the number of women or any other under-represented group participating in the military.

However, the modernisation of attitudes and practices goes far beyond issues of equality and inclusion. Within state institutions, modernisation of attitudes and practices also means that there must be a fundamental shift in mindsets towards the robust implementation of formal rules and systems, and the end of arbitrary, personalised decision making and processes. Formal rules and procedures are essential components of democratic governance, as they ensure that administrative processes are depoliticised and not subject to personal whims, interests or connections. This guarantees that people of all social classes, political affiliation or personal connections can access services, benefits and opportunities equally. These systems also ensure that high level officials are held accountable for their actions, and cannot simply make decisions based on their own whims and personal interests.

Currently, Timor-Leste’s state institutions continue to be dominated by what FM calls the “Rule of the Deal”, rather than operating primarily based on formal rules and procedures. This means that state administration tends not to function according to rules, but is rather mainly driven by connections and power interests. At the level of day-to-day bureaucracy such as organising documents, this means that without personal connections “inside” the institution, it is difficult to receive documents without facing long delays. At the highest level of decision making, it means that contracts and budgets are approved – or rejected – not based on whether they have merit or follow appropriate procedures, but rather based on the relationship between the people involved.

Sadly, despite achieving significant progress across various institutions, Timor-Leste’s state agencies are far from fully meeting the definition of “modern” and “professional.” Of course, Timor-Leste is still a young country with a low level of socio-economic development, itself the result of centuries of isolation, occupation, conflict and ineffective governance. FM therefore believes that the modernisation of F-FDTL is inherently linked to the modernisation of Timorese society in general. F-FDTL cannot modernise and professionalise if Timor-Leste as a whole remains under-developed in terms of economy, institutional culture, education, attitudes and social practices. The transformation of F-FDTL to a modern, professional military thus hinges on broader programs of national economic, social and cultural development.

The last issue FM wishes to focus on is one which we have discussed previously, namely generational transition. As we know, Timor-Leste’s state institutions continue to be dominated by the 1975 generation of leaders. Their mentality and practices are strongly influenced by their experiences of the past, especially guerrilla warfare and clandestine struggle. Many of the habits developed during these times can be seen reflected in today’s politics, or what FM has described this as Timor-Leste’s culture of “guerrilla politics.”

When discussing modernisation of the military, it is noteworthy that F-FDTL still bears the name of the guerrilla resistance army, FALINTIL. Indeed, the bravery and sacrifice of the male and female guerrilla heroes cannot be forgotten. Neither can that of the tens of thousands of civilians who provided them with essential support, often risking their lives for the cause of national liberation. However, just as commemoration of the past and respect for the sacrifices and needs of resistance heroes and heroines are key elements of F-FDTL’s character, modernisation necessarily entails looking forward and reducing dependence on historical narratives. It is also essential to avoid politicising the past; too often in Timor-Leste, the resistance history has been abused for partisan interests.

Most of the today’s top F-FDTL officers were FALINTIL fighters. By contrast, most of the younger generation of F-FDTL officers were born too late to participate in the guerrilla, despite many supporting the resistance through other means. At the same time, they have also been exposed to new ideas, practices and technologies throughout their careers, including the advanced military practices and doctrines of other countries. The young generation is the future of F-FDTL, and their post-independence experiences will be critical in shaping the modernisation of the military going forward. FM therefore hopes that current leaders will guarantee that younger officers are promoted based on merit, without regard to their participation in the resistance or political affiliation.

FM therefore urges leaders of both F-FDTL and the Government to combat politicisation and personalisation of all state institutions, including the military. This means that politicians must not glorify specific people while attacking others based on real or imagined actions from the past. It also entails ensuring that rules are applied equally and that opportunities are distributed based on merit, not personal relationships formed long ago. This will facilitate the continued modernisation and professionalisation of the state and its human resources. For F-FDTL, these steps are essential to prepare the younger generation of military officers for their future leadership role. Finally, the modernisation of F-FDTL also depends on uplifting the whole of Timorese society to become more affluent, educated and skilled, which requires significant investments and sustained cooperation between all leaders and parties. FM hopes that F-FDTL can work with political leaders and civil society to achieve this vision.

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