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The UN's failure to integrate Falintil veterans may cause East Timor to fail

By Edward Rees - posted Tuesday, 2 September 2003

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 party, Fretilin.

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 service.

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.

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About the Author

Edward Rees, served with the United Nations in Timor-Leste, Kosovo and New York and is now Senior Adviser to the Peace Dividend Trust. Peace Dividend Trust has offices in Dili, Kabul, Ottawa and New York.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Edward Rees
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Government of Timor Leste
United Nations Development Programme in East Timor
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