Timor Leste – A Kaleidoscope of Conflicts 0

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By Henri Myrttinen


The following paper is based on some of my impressions and observations from my visit to Timor Leste from 25.10.-24.11.2007. While I spent the majority of my time in Dili, I did also make several trips to the districts of Baucau (Afasa, Baucau, Vemasse), Cova Lima (Suai, Zumalai), Manufahi (Same) and Viqueque (incl. Uatolari). In addition, I interviewed several groups of ex-pro-integrationists (incl. ex-militia) in Indonesian West Timor in Atambua and Betun the following week.

I used the paper as a backgrounder to a presentation I held in early February 2008. Less than 24 hours later, it had been overtaken by events in Dili. The next turn of the kaleidoscope had taken place, and it was a dramatic one, leaving Major Alfredo Reinado and one of his supporters dead, President Ramos-Horta seriously wounded and the country under a state of siege/emergency. Rather than revisiting the paper and, for example, changing all sentences in which Reinado appears into the past tense, I chose to leave the paper as it stood, as a snapshot of the times.

Possible coup attempt aside, some of the issues which in late 2007 were rumoured to become ‘hot’ issues in 2008, such as MONALPOM, have not materialised. Thanks to the curfew, gang violence seems to have gone down and IDPs seem to be starting to be leaving camps, albeit in initially small numbers. The security situation has, however, gone in UN-speak from ‘calm but tense’ to ‘fragile.’

The attempted coup or kidnapping attempt has again highlighted many of the issues which have been characterised East Timorese politics: security sector problems, the role of rumour in political discourse and the strength of clientilist networks of patronage.

A continuing key problem is the existence of a highly politicised security sector hobbled by a lack of a clear delineation of tasks firstly between the East Timorese and international security forces and secondly within these two groups by the overlapping mandates of PNTL/F-FDTL on the one hand and UNPOL/ISF on the other. The waters have been further muddied by the new joint F-FDTL/PNTL command on the Timorese side and the arrival of Australian non-UNPOL AFP on the international side.

Not surprisingly, the events of February 11, 2008, have spawned a plethora of rumours and conspiracy theories. In addition to ‘grassroots’ speculation spreading by SMS and word-of-mouth, many of these ‘truths’ are being peddled publicly by key members of the political and security sector elite, doing more to add to the ‘kingdom of fear’ rather than shedding light on the actual events. Whether or not these conspiracy theories prove to be true or not is one thing, but in my opinion the phenomenon itself deserves further analysis.

The coup/kidnapping attempt and its aftermath are also an indication of the strength of clientilist patronage networks on East Timorese politics, regardless of what ‘The Truth’ about the events turns out to be in the end. While problematic in many ways when considered from a ‘western’ perspective, they are also one of the foundations upon which East Timorese society is built, which also create openings for conflict resolution.

But on to the already aged snapshot…

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