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On the Anniversary of Independence, How Secure Is Timor-Leste?

September 25, 2019

By Robin Perry

Last month, Dili played host to visiting government officials from more than 20 countries, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Timor-Leste’s vote for independence on August 30, 1999. As the excitement and gravitas of the nationwide festivities taper off, and the dry-season dust resettles on Dili, it is a good time to reflect on Timor-Leste’s many achievements over that period, and the obstacles that lie ahead.

Timor-Leste in 2019 is peaceful and stable, and it is hard to refute the fact that, since enduring 24 years of Indonesian occupation and the devastation of 1999, the country has come a long way in a short time. This is all the more remarkable in light of the many obstacles it has faced—and will continue to face—in maintaining that peace. Asia’s newest nation-state has one of the youngest and least-employed populations in the region, low-level violence among youth is commonplace, and the women of Timor-Leste experience some of the highest rates of domestic violence in Asia.

Communal disharmony is often exacerbated by complex, overlapping, and poorly understood dispute-resolution processes involving a multitude of actors. This is particularly acute in relation to the intractable problems of land titling and administration, which a recently enacted, controversial package of land laws has apparently failed to address. Meanwhile, the government institutions charged with meeting these challenges and many others are nascent, poorly resourced, and inevitably colored by the deep legacies of over 500 years of Portuguese colonialism and invasion and occupation by Indonesia.

Coming just a few days after the last of the dignitaries departed Dili, the release of The Asia Foundation’s Community-Police Perceptions Survey on September 3 helps shed light on Timor’s complex security challenges. The CPP Survey is the fifth of its kind in Timor-Leste, where The Asia Foundation conducted its first nationwide survey on security perceptions in 2008. The Surveys were repeated in 2009, 2013, 2015, and 2018 to create a barometer of public opinion over time.

For the current Survey, between 72 and 88 questions were asked of 3,178 respondents, chosen by random sampling across all 13 of the country’s districts, in September and October 2018. Respondents were categorized as police (Policia Nacional Timor-Leste, or PNTL), the general public, and community leaders, with distinct but very similar questionnaires for each group.

Although the Surveys have been partly inspired by and managed through the Foundation’s long-standing support for community policing in Timor-Leste—currently funded by the New Zealand government through the Community Policing Support Program (CPSP)—their findings have important implications for all sectors of society.

Security in Timor-Leste has remained stable in recent years

Nearly all respondents, 95%, say the security situation in the last year has either improved or stayed the same. Between 2008 and 2009, there was a dramatic increase in the public’s perception that security had improved, an increase that has since stabilized.

Illustration: Lowy Interpreter

In the latest CPP Survey, the top three security problems identified by the public, community leaders, and the PNTL are land issues, youth problems, and domestic violence. These were also the top security concerns in 2015.

Illustration: Lowy Interpreter

But communal disputes are commonplace, and land disputes in particular are increasing

Although most people say overall security has improved, it is still common for people to be involved in disputes, with nearly half of respondents indicating that they have an ongoing dispute with someone in their community. Most disputes are land related, and these have increased significantly since 2015.

Illustration: Lowy Interpreter

The perception of stability is also reflected in high levels of communal trust, confidence, and appreciation for the work of the PNTL

When asked whether they trust the police, 99% of both the general public and community leaders say yes. This is the same percentage as 2015. There were numerous other questions targeting public perceptions of PNTL performance that elicited overwhelmingly positive perceptions about the PNTL and their role in the community.

Despite these findings, and the government’s increasing emphasis on the need for greater service to the community, PNTL’s effectiveness is still undermined by its militaristic orientation. This was thrown into stark relief on November 17, 2018, when three teenagers were shot and killed and another five wounded by an armed, off-duty PNTL officer (or officers) following an altercation at a party in the Dili neighborhood of Kuluhun.

PNTL officers and community leaders are the most common first responders to communal security problems and disputes

The overwhelming majority of all respondents in the latest Survey say that the PNTL and citizens are working together to address security problems in their community. When the public is asked whether, hypothetically, they would first report a crime to a community leader or a PNTL officer, nearly three quarters (72%) say they would report to a community leader, while around a quarter (27%) say they would report to the PNTL.

Illustration: Lowy Interpreter

At the same time, responses indicate that people who had actually experienced a crime in the preceding year were just as likely to request assistance first from the PNTL (42%) as they were from someone within the community (43%).

PNTL and community leaders collaborate closely to resolve communal disputes

A majority of the general public (65%), community leaders (70%), and the PNTL (83%) say the PNTL is playing a role in resolving disputes by local community leaders. Well over half (64%) of cases reported initially to the PNTL were resolved through mediation involving both the PNTL and community leaders.

Community Policing Council training, Special Administrative Region of Oe-Cusse, Timor-Leste

There has been a significant increase in the number of people saying the PNTL is involved in active mediation, from 36% in 2015 to 58% in 2018. It is very rare, however, for cases to be referred for investigation and prosecution, and rarer still that they go to trial.

Overall, these findings are the tip of a deep iceberg of information about how the people of Timor-Leste feel about security, and they will raise as many questions as answers. To further explore those questions and answers, the CPP Survey data can be accessed via The Asia Foundation’s data portal.

Of course, what the CPP Survey does not do is explain why respondents feel the way they do about these issues, or what the government of Timor-Leste might do to address them. The Foundation will be working with its CPSP partners, the PNTL and the New Zealand Police, in the coming months to further consider and clarify the policy implications of the findings, as a foundation for targeted policy.

This essay appeared previously, in slightly different form, in the Lowy Interpreter, and is reposted here by permission.

Robin Perry is team leader of The Asia Foundation’s Community Policing Support Program in Timor-Leste. He can be reached at robin.perry@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

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