Independent East Timor is faced with a major challenge in consolidating its nascent democracy, this being the divisions within the veterans of the resistance
community and the way it is being manifested in the creation of the new state's security institutions. In fact, the role of veterans in the new country dominates the community's political equation from the villages to the capitol.
Significantly, East Timor has been seriously hampered in being able to address this due to the role that the United Nations and the international community played
in the metamorphosis of the 24-year-old East Timorese anti-Indonesian resistance movement (both the guerrillas and urban activists) into a professional defence
force and police service.
This issue was fraught with difficulties from the very outset of the United Nations Transitional Administration for East Timor (UNTAET), which governed
East Timor from November 1999 until May 2002. UNTAET committed a series early mistakes vis a vis the demobilisation of the Armed Forces for the National
Liberation of East Timor (Falintil) guerrillas, its relationship with the clandestine
resistance and the related subsequent decisions regarding the establishment of the East Timor Defense Force (Falintil-FDTL) and Police Service (PNTL). While
internationally hailed as a success UNTAET has actually bestowed a legacy of mistakes upon East Timor which are already causing East Timor's nascent democracy to stumble,
and possibly fail in the medium term.
On assuming control of East Timor UNTAET encountered the issue of the status of Falintil, which had fought the Indonesians for 24 years. Interfet's early error
of seeking to disarm Falintil despite its clear moral legitimacy within the community
was compounded by UNTAET's avoidance of the issue and by the donor's inability
to aid an "illegitimate" armed force. Consequently, Falintil became
increasing marginalised and shaky discipline within the force lead to it beginning
to pose a security threat. On 23 June 2000, Falintil Supreme Commander and President
of the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT) Xanana Gusmão reported
that the force was "almost in a state of revolt". Thus began the process
of reconstituting Falintil from a loosely organised guerrilla movement into a
legitimate professional military.
On 1 February 2001, Falintil was retired and F-FDTL (Falintil-FDTL) was established
in fact and in law. 650 former Falintil were absorbed into the first F-FDTL battalion,
thereby excluding more than 1300 former Falintil guerrillas. This shocked many
who had understood that simply by being Falintil that they would become F-FDTL.
It is important to note that the UNTAET-shepherded process whereby it was decided
who would join the first F-FDTL battalion and who would be demobilised under the
Falintil Reinsertion Assistance Program (FRAP) - implemented by the International
Organisation for Migration and funded by the United States Agency for International
Development and the World Bank - was the key turning point in the development
of East Timor's security sector. And the key mistake.
In late 2000, UNTAET and the Falintil High Command agreed that the F-FDTL selection
process would remain an internal Falintil matter. At this stage in the development
of the transitional administration, UNTAET acquiesced to the closed and subjective
nature of the process. UNTAET was so dependent on its primary interlocutor with
the East Timorese community, now President Xanana Gusmão (formerly Commander
in Chief of Falintil, President of the CNRT and the Association of Veterans of
the Resistance - AVR) that it could not protest. Importantly, neither did it protest
nor did it consult Fretilin leadership - who now govern the country and from within
whose ranks come the loudest protests regarding the constitution and orientation
of the defence force.
Ultimately, the decision regarding who would enter F-FDTL was based on internal
Falintil divisions based on personality clashes, ancient political arguments connected
to ideology and various forms of allegiances. Falintil commanders and their followers
admitted to the F-FDTL were Gusmão loyalists. Of those who were excluded
from the F-FDTL, a sizable minority had an acrimonious relationship with Gusmão
and the FDTL High Command from as early as 1981 (including Ely Foho Rai Bo'ot,
leader of the Sagrada Familia grouping). Many of these individuals were wooed
by Fretilin in 2001 and have found a patron in the Minister for Internal Administration,
an old political sparring partner of the now Secretary of State for Defence -
a Gusmão loyalist.
In response to the establishment of the F-FDTL, there was an increase in paramilitary
security groups across the country (involving disaffected former Falintil and
Clandestine activists) operating throughout the country. These groups were loosely
connected under the umbrella of the Association of Ex-Combatants 1975 (AC75),
headed by the now Minister for Internal Administration, and include among others
Sagrada Familia and the Committee for the Popular Defence of the Democratic Republic
of Timor-Leste (CPD- RDTL). While most are politically oriented, others have more
criminal motivations. Under the patronage of a lead Fretilin Central Committee
member and one time Minister of Defence (Rogerio Lobato) from 2001 until 20 May
2002 these groups challenged the legitimacy of the F-FDTL. This process culminated
on 20 May 2002 after a series of veteran marches across the country with the appointment
of the political patron of these groups to the portfolio of Minister of Internal
Administration - the political master of the police service.
It was shortly after May 2002 that UNTAET's second key mistake relating to
the veteran's community and developing the security sector was exposed.
Recognising that the Gusmão loyalists had irreversibly secured the defence
force's position, those fringe Fretilin veteran activists turned their gaze upon
the police service. In early 2000, UNTAET, once again in conjunction with the
Xanana lead CNRT, had made a decision to recruit East Timorese former Polri into
the PNTL. Based on practical expediency to set up a police service, this was a
flawed policy. Once again this decision was taken based on a narrow consultation
with the East Timor polity, once again excluding most significantly the now governing
From May to November 2002 many in the fringe Fretilin Falintil and broader
veterans community began to agitate community sentiments against the police service
and most specifically the 350-plus ex-Polri in the system that held the bulk of
the senior positions, including the East Timorese police chief himself. As in
the case of the defence force the lead critics were to found in the Minister himself
and those fringe Fretilin veterans groups that he supported in seeking to undermine
the F-FDTL. The critics' primary aim was to ensure that future recruitment favour
veterans - presumably of their political stripe - thus politicising the police
service in much the same way that the defence force had been politicised with
Gusmão loyalists. Such was the state of the criticism that the UN police
chief quickly and publicly butted heads with the Minister - fearing that the wholesale
recruitment of veterans would undermine the already shaky professionalism of the
Anti-government protests/gatherings were called on Falintil Day (20 August
2002) and Independence Day (28 November 2002) in which large crowds attended -
much in contrast to the smaller more muted government affairs. From May to December
2002 the police service experienced a series of clashes around the country with
the fringe Fretilin veteran's community, and even the defence force on at least
on occasion. These left numerous people dead, many others wounded and dozens arrested.
These actions exposed the weaknesses of the police service and lengths to which
people were willing go to correct what they saw to be as an UNTAET-era injustice.