Notes from the Field

Age-Old Ceremony Cements Community-Police Cooperation in Timor-Leste

June 23, 2010

In Timor Leste, the UN mission is meant to officially hand over law-and-order responsibilities to the national police force (PNTL) by the end of this year. While questions have been raised about what exactly is being handed over, an equal number of questions have been raised about how to measure the preparedness of the PNTL to provide security.

However, in a nation-wide poll conducted by The Asia Foundation on law and justice in Timor-Leste, more than three out of four people held that community leaders were still responsible for the rules that govern their daily lives in Timor-Leste and were also primarily responsible for maintaining security in their locality. On top of that, Timor-Leste boasts an astonishingly low crime rate.

If local communities are largely self-sufficient and crime is low, then what role is left for police to play?

Problems arise when traditional community structures are fractured and unable to establish law and order. Also, when customary laws fail to protect all basic human rights, victims often lack other recourse. Many other long-accepted practices, such as public consumption of alcohol and drunken behavior and verbal harassment of young women, are often not actually treated as crimes under local custom.

The police fill this gap. Police are an important bridge between the formal and informal systems of justice. Within the last 10 years since Timor-Leste gained independence, the PNTL have demonstrated welcoming signs that they are on the right track.

One day in early May under the roof of an open-air community center, over 500 residents of Dili’s Bidau-Santana village participated in an ancient ceremony, called Tara Bandu, to establish a community-wide agreement for security. Twenty members of the National Police, as well as four village elders acting as spiritual guides, Timor-Leste’s President Jose Ramos Horta, and U.S. Ambassador Hans Klemm participated. The all day-ceremony centered on public consecration of a writ that incorporates customary and formal laws, including the mandate of the police that specifies unallowable behavior in the community and the penalty for breaking the declaration. While most rural villages have the Tara Bandu in place, it is generally considered weak in a number of urban communities, including Bidau Santana in Dili. Recent resettlement, migration, and other forms of displacement have weakened customary forms of governance.

Timor Leste Tara Bandu ceremony

Silas Everett (left) shares a toast with Timor-Leste’s President Jose Ramos Horta (right) and U.S. Ambassador Hans Klemm at the recent Tara Bandu Ceremony.

Traditionally, the ceremony is a way of calling on ancestral spirits to protect the environment around one’s village. However, this Tara Bandu ceremony sought specifically to improve local security through drawing on customary practices to protect the rights of citizens within the community. Penalties for breaking the newly established laws included community service and fines ranging between $5 and $100.

Mr. Francisco Freitas, Bidau-Santana Village chief explained, “Our Tara Bandu declaration elaborates the seven articles of President Ramos Horta’s Bidau Santana Declaration made in Cristo Rei last year. The Declaration is made up of 30 articles that are meant to enforce safety and security in our community. It was written after two months of community discussion among many representatives who live and work here, including the police.”

The Tara Bandu initiative emerged from The Asia Foundation’s previous USAID-funded work with the PNTL, during which citizens and police formed Community Police Councils in Dili and Baucau (both urban areas) in over a dozen villages over the last 14 months. Then, every other week, police and a range of community leaders, including women representatives, businessmen, and religious leaders, discussed security issues in the Councils. Based on consultation and feedback from the wider community, the Council in Bidau Santana decided to conduct this Tara Bandu ceremony.

“The principles of community policing and the principles of Tara Bandu are very similar. They are both based on the idea that many of the problems that exist in the community can be prevented by citizens themselves,” said Liam Chinn, The Asia Foundation’s Community Policing program manager.

PNTL Commander Superintendent Joao Belo succinctly summed up the importance of the ceremony, “The police and the communities have broken down a lot of walls [through Community Police Councils]. That frees up a lot of creative good will waiting to come out on both sides – that’s where we are starting to see momentum for improving the way communities and police interact, and in that way we are seeing overall improvements in security.”

Silas Everett is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Timor-Leste. He can be reached at severett@asiafound.org.

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