Weekly Insights and Analysis

In Timor-Leste: The Politics of Internal Security

May 21, 2008

By Thomas Parks

The security situation in Timor-Leste seems to be improving. Since the February 11th attacks on President Ramos-Horta and Prime Minster Xanana Gusmao, Dili has been remarkably quiet. With the April 27 surrender of Gastao Salsinha and the remaining rebel hold-outs, the government has shown that it can use negotiation to resolve an ongoing security threat. Growing military and police cooperation indicates that the dangerous rivalry between the two has diminished. To the occasional visitor, the country seems a very different place from 2006 when street violence was a daily occurrence.

The relative calm, however, may be misleading, as many of the challenges from 2006 remain. The large population of internally displaced people (IDP) remains a major challenge, with more than 30,000 people living in camps that have been a center of instability, and up to 70,000 more living with friends or relatives. With rapidly rising rice prices and growing unemployment, the government is under increasing pressure to address the IDP problem, while trying to stimulate growth. Less than 5% of recent graduates are finding work, leaving most young people on the streets. The current coalition government has been weakened by reports of corruption and recent movement by smaller coalition parties towards the opposition Fretilin party. If the coalition partners remove their support for the government as they have suggested, there could be new elections in 2009 leading to possibly more instability.

The most striking change, however, is in the Timorese security forces. The sources of instability have not gone away, yet the security situation has improved. While the UN Police presence and the Australian-led International Stabilization Force have played an important role, the military (F-FDTL) and police (PNTL) have taken on an increasingly visible and assertive role in maintaining order and addressing security threats. Beginning with the formation of the Special Task Force after the current government took power in August 2007, and accelerating with the formation of a joint military-police command after the February 11 attacks, the military has been given a central role in internal security. Despite constitutional provisions that are supposed to limit the military to external defense only, the government has opened the door to military involvement in internal security.

According to some observers, the military was growing extremely frustrated with its previously limited role, and has enthusiastically pursued its new lead role in internal security. The joint operations have also been welcomed by the police. For the first time since April 2006 — when police and military rivalries erupted into violence — the two forces have been working together. The additional pay for joint command operations also helps to boost morale. Despite the continuing UN-led screening process for reinstatement of pre-2006 officers, there are signs of growing confidence within the PNTL ranks.

Timor-Leste security forces seem to have turned the corner. But with new assertiveness and a growing mandate come new problems on the horizon. There have been complaints of heavy-handed tactics in the joint command operations, particularly in Ermera district, the site of counter-insurgency operations against the rebels involved in the February 11th incident. The level of abuse by security forces thus far has been relatively mild, but the absence of any serious oversight mechanism risks a slide towards greater impunity and heavy-handedness. Bolstered by popular support for the security operations and anxious to please the increasingly restless military, the government is reluctant to call off the joint command operations. Some observers believe that the military’s role in internal security is here to stay. Comprised mostly of former guerilla fighters, the F-FDTL holds a special place in the national story of resistance and independence from Indonesia, and they perceive themselves to be the guardians of the nation. Under the current circumstances, it is unclear how the military will respond if ordered to return to the barracks. As a result, the government appears apprehensive to give such an order.

Timor-Leste seems to be following the path of its Southeast Asian neighbors. In almost every case, the militaries of Southeast Asian nations are concerned primarily with internal security. Most of the serious security threats are internal, and governments have tended to deploy the military against the more serious internal threats. Furthermore, the politics of internal security tends to override the constitutional barriers to military involvement, especially in a country like Timor-Leste, a young democracy with weak institutions where security is in short supply. The problem, however, is that a military focused on internal security tends to be more likely to intervene in civilian functions and is more prone to politicization. It is also more difficult to hold the military accountable for abuses when they become a problem.

One of the basic tenets of state-building and civil-military relations is that the police should be solely responsible for internal law and order. The problem is that it is much easier to train a military than a police force. In Timor-Leste, the problem is compounded by the fact that the police force does not have nearly the same level of institutional cohesion and camaraderie as the military, nor do they have the same level of respect from the public.

One of the critical challenges in Timor-Leste is the lack of trust and cooperation between the police and communities, especially in the more volatile neighborhoods. When people are victims of a crime or are being threatened, they are very unlikely to approach the police, but instead tend to take matters into their own hands. As a result, one attack precipitates another, leading to an ongoing cycle of tension and violence.

The recent reduction in the level of violence has created an opportunity for the PNTL to strengthen its links with conflict-affected communities through community engagement and informal feedback mechanisms. National and international efforts so far have had mixed results in taking advantage of this opportunity. The creation of a community policing section of the PNTL is a positive step, but there is a need for capacity-building and tangible programs on the ground to operationalize the mandate of this new unit. The UN Police mission has been almost entirely focused on maintaining security, and has struggled to provide capacity-building for the PNTL. An important new initiative by the Australian Federal Police will be critical for building police capacity, but it will take some time before the impact becomes apparent. There are also signs of growing tensions between the Timorese security forces and the international forces (particularly the UN Police). The government is increasingly reticent to follow the UN’s advice on internal security matters, and has been quietly resisting calls for security sector reform by the international community. While Timor-Leste still needs the international security presence to maintain order, there is a growing uneasiness in Timorese political and military circles with the heavy international presence.

Most observers believe that future stability in Timor-Leste depends on progress in addressing the irritants that produced previous rounds of conflict ” IDPs, unemployment, East-West divide, land rights, and corruption. This is only part of the picture. In the coming year, the politics of security will be an increasingly important predictor on questions of stability and governance in Timor-Leste. Can the police increase the level of cooperation and trust within the conflict-affected communities? Will the military’s role in security continue to grow? Will the political parties compete for military support in future elections? And if the military consolidates its role in internal security, what does this mean for the police and the rights of Timorese citizens?

Thomas Parks is The Asia Foundation’s Regional Director for Governance and Conflict Programs. He is based in Bangkok and can be reached at

Related locations: Timor-Leste
Related programs: Conflict and Fragile Conditions


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