Convulsions of Nation-Building: Violence-ridden East Timor on the eve of elections
East Timor is an ill-starred land that has endured more than its share of violence, neglect and deprivation. Since February 2007 there has been a renewed surge in violence, initially due to gang turf battles and increasingly aggressive clashes between gangs and international peacekeepers. After the Australian police shot three protesting IDPs (internally displaced people) near the airport on February 23rd, killing two of them, street confrontations and demonstrations grew more menacing. At the request of President Xanana Gusmao, on March 4th Australian troops surrounded and tried to capture a renegade soldier, Major Alfredo Reinado, killing five of his troops but failing to capture the fugitive who had escaped from prison last summer. Subsequently, death threats were made against the president, his relatives had their houses attacked and ransacked, and anti-Australian sentiments have surged. With the prospects for a restoration of peace uncertain, international peacekeepers, once warmly welcomed, are now the target of violent elements. It is hard to imagine a less promising environment for the upcoming presidential elections.
The dream of independence realized in 2002 has turned into a nightmare. In 2006, only four years after it gained independence, violent clashes erupted yet again on the streets of Dili, East Timor's capital. The troubles began in February with a small-scale mutiny in the military over pay and promotion grievances. That ignited a simmering feud between President Xanana Gusmao and Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri.
After the prime minister dismissed the mutineers, violence flared between military units and subsequently involved the police. The clashes were linked to the political conflict at the top, but were also driven by ethno-linguistic tensions between easterners and westerners that many observers attribute to political machinations.
By June, roaming gangs had torched and looted their way around most of Dili and driven many easterners out of their homes into the refugee camps where many still remain.
At that time the loss of life was relatively small, 37 -- but the violence undermined the fragile sense of stability that had slowly emerged in the wake of the Indonesian military's bloody farewell in 1999. This is a society that still bears the scars of losing nearly 200,000 people to the famines and killing caused by Indonesia's 24-year occupation. It is hard to exaggerate the extent to which the lawlessness and violence today reflect a deeply traumatized society and the legacies of Indonesia’s brutality and systematic disregard for human rights and good governance. History is not destiny, but East Timor suffers from collective post-traumatic stress amplified by the fact that many of those who migrated into Dili face bleak prospects and no longer have recourse to the traditional support and mediation mechanisms common in rural villages. Certainly the Timorese are making choices, but their options, inclinations and habits are powerfully shaped by their collective trauma and endemic poverty.
In June 2006, Australian security forces arrived and restored calm. Prime Minister Alkatiri was forced to resign under pressure from President Xanana Gusmao over allegations that he and Interior Minister Rogerio Lobato had distributed weapons to a hit squad targeting political opponents.
In July, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Jose Ramos-Horta -- founder of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, the spokesman in exile for the resistance throughout the 1975-99 Indonesian occupation and a candidate for president in the April 9 elections, became prime minister after serving as foreign minister under Prime Minister Alkatiri. Then, in the following month, Japan sponsored a resolution that established UNMIT (United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor Leste [East Timor]).
The resumption of the UN presence in East Timor reflects widespread recognition that the world body had declared "mission accomplished" too soon back in 2002, and prematurely left East Timor to its own devices just three years after attaining self-determination in the 1999 referendum. UNMIT reflects the desire to assure the political stability that could allow this impoverished new nation to get on with the unfinished business of nation building and overcoming the legacy of colonialism, war and deprivation.
Meanwhile, East Timor's moribund justice system creaks under the backlog of cases from the crimes associated with the final bloody months of Indonesian rule in 1999, and now faces a public demanding accountability for high-ranking perpetrators involved in the fresh crimes committed in 2006.
Escalating gang violence adds to this disturbing portrait of a nation on the brink. With presidential and parliamentary elections approaching, the downward spiral threatens to derail this fragile democracy.
At the close of 2006, there were ominous signs of East Timor’s continuing crisis. An ongoing drought, for one, undermined already low morale and led to more rice shortages and hunger.
Anxiety also fed on the ominous omen of the birth of a one-eyed pig with an elephant-like snout. Then, when a lake outside Dili suddenly turned blood red, many saw it as a harbinger of violence in 2007.
Landscape of drought-stricken Maubisse, East Timor
These omens reflect and feed anxieties in a society with good cause for fear. In 2006, the promise and hope of self-determination that had buoyed sentiments through four lean years went up in smoke -- along with more than 2,000 homes. .
Dili once again witnessed indiscriminate killing and felt the arsonists’ torch as the settling of scores, and the certainty of impunity, unleashed a pent-up malevolence fed by bitter disappointment in post-independence realities. As things went from very bad to far worse, neighborhoods were "cleansed" and ransacked, driving an estimated 150,000 people into refugee camps across the island -- a staggering 15 percent of the entire population.
Despair peered at me through the chain-link fence separating the airport from a refugee camp of nearly 8,000 internally displaced people (IDP). From behind this forlorn facade of despair, angry IDPs threw rocks at security personnel and their vehicles guarding the air terminal. Visitors walking off the tarmac dashed to the safety of taxis with shattered windscreens and scarred bodywork amid a cacophony of projectiles pinging off metal.
My taxi driver explained that the government had declared the next day the deadline for the IDPs to leave the airport refugee camp.
It is a sign of the desperation in Dili that this miserable, flood-prone tent encampment along the fringe of the runway is deemed worth fighting for. It's more telling that those being asked to leave have nowhere to go.
The internally displaced were being encouraged to return to their homes or extended families, as the government worried that having settled in, the IDPs were becoming far too comfortable, with running water and regular meals at state expense.
Luiz Viera of the International Organization of Migration (IOM) told me that the government did not want to build alternative IDP sites because it feared sending the wrong message. The camps have become a tangible symbol of the government's failure to protect the public, and its inability to ease fears that violence will erupt again. Building new camps could be seen as a sign that the government was resigned to this situation.
An East Timor elder, teeth darked by betel
Viera pointed out, however, that returning to their homes was not an option for people who had been driven from them, often by neighbors and gangs. Some of their houses have been burned down, others have been occupied, and fear remains a formidable obstacle to resuming life as it was.
Although the number of refugees has declined to around 100,000, Viera said his organization is braced for an influx this year, reflecting widespread pessimism about election-related violence.
Kerry Clarke from Oxfam said that the "fear factor" that prevails among IDPs, many of whom have lost everything, has become part of East Timor's social fabric. In her view, the east-west divide was "whipped up out of the blue" for political purposes, but now it has become reality because most of the IDPs are easterners, and dealing with their situation has become a divisive political issue.
There are good reasons why the collective mantra in the UN these days is to promise less and deliver more. There is a consensus in Timor Leste that the UN left too soon. Finn Reske-Nielsen, who served as Acting Senior Representative of the Secretary General for UNMIT until mid-December 2006, spoke on December 18 of a collective naivete about the difficulties of nation building and over excessive confidence in progress made when the UN oversaw the transition to independence in May, 2002. “The fundamental problem was that everyone, including me, underestimated the time required to guide post-conflict Timor to a stable and firm footing. We were way too optimistic in 2002.” At the time, he pointed out, with crises building in Haiti, Sudan and Lebanon, Timor Leste did not get the sustained assistance it needed. According to him, Secretary-General Kofi Annan publicly acknowledged that the UN had left too soon. The establishment of UNMIT in August, 2006 is, he said, recognition of both the UN’s earlier failure and its responsibility to address the unfinished business of nation-building.
Japan is the largest provider of ODA
Timor Leste has regained international attention, but one wonders for how long and if resources will be adequate to the myriad long-run challenges facing one of the poorest nations on earth, one that has slipped down on virtually every UNDP indicator on the Human Development Index. (For a synopsis of the most recent HDI see: www.laohamutuk.org/reports/06HDIslips.htm). Reske-Nielsen confessed that the fact that Timorese are worse off now than they were when the UN first arrived is an embarrassing development and powerful motivation to make the most out of this second opportunity to get things right.
Augustinho de Vasconselos, a Presbyterian minister in Dili, told me that in both 1999 and 2006 his neighbors had targeted his house, setting it on fire and looting his possessions, mistakenly believing that he is an easterner, or so they claimed. For him and for the nation, reconciliation must be based on accountability. Those who commit crimes must acknowledge their wrongdoing and be punished or else the cycle of impunity and violence will swirl out of control. But, even though he knows who attacked him—the same people in both instances—the police have not arrested the perpetrators and the prospects for justice are remote. This is a bitter pill to swallow even for a man of the cloth who was one of the commissioners directing the work of the Commission of Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR) and who continues to work on disseminating the report’s findings. Looking at the anger flashing in his eyes and the resentment this reflected, one better understands how impunity is driving society to the brink.
Many people are seeking mediation by traditional and religious leaders, but this is not slaking the people’s thirst for justice. By failing to prosecute perpetrators the government has sent the wrong message and encouraged young people, emboldened by impunity, to resort to violence and illegal activities. The political leadership has set the tone through its expedient approach to human rights violations and overly zealous concern for reconciliation. Father Martinus Gusmao, Director of the Justice and Peace Commission in the Catholic Diocese of Bacau, warns that the government is also stoking vigilantism, because, “What people can’t find in the courts they will find on the streets in the form of dark justice.”
I was surprised when Jaime Xavier Lopez, the head of Sacred Heart, a notorious martial arts group, told me to meet him at the government’s Office of Cadastral Surveys and Property where he has his day job. Or had, since he is now imprisoned.
He is well-educated, soft-spoken and unassuming, not quite what I expected from a gang boss. According to him, Sacred Heart has 6,000 members and 10,000 students enrolled in a four-year course of training. One eye locks on me while the other wanders off as he denies that his martial arts group has links with prominent political opposition parties. He does admit, however, that many members may have overlapping memberships. Lopez complains that some rioting gangs wear Sacred Heart’s distinctive uniforms trying to discredit it, but acknowledges that in some cases its members engage in violence, but only for self-defense. The police see this differently, explaining why he is in jail.
A gang member
The omnipresence of martial arts groups and gangs in Dili reflects the bankruptcy of the judicial system and contributes to a cycle of retaliations and police confrontations. Arrested gang members know that in no time they will be back on the streets. International police officers express frustration that there is no law banning the carrying of dangerous weapons like machetes, darts, knives or slingshots. The gangs know the rules of engagement for the international police units and act accordingly, pushing street melees perilously close to the edge.
Gangs are thriving because a culture of impunity prevails. Law enforcement is lax, the prosecution is overwhelmed, there is no witness protection program and the courts barely function.
Only the Portuguese police units inspire fear among criminals. They are a scary looking beefy bunch, bristling with menace and weapons. I was told that if these Portuguese officers need to get out of their air conditioned patrol vehicles, they find some heads to bang as a matter of principle. Their no-holds barred approach to policing is lamented by human rights activists, but for many, they are a welcome pit bull to cope with the breakdown of law and order.
A US Embassy source says that gang violence is escalating and gangs have become a much more visible and menacing presence on the streets since the middle of 2006.
An Australian federal police officer agrees that the situation on the streets has worsened considerably since UNMIT assumed responsibility for security in August. He was withering in his criticism of the UN bureaucracy and endless red tape that impeded effective policing.
A youth is detained by Australian police
in East Timor, 2006.
This officer says the gang violence has reached a new stage that it shows signs of coordination. Whereas previously gang attacks seemed random, they are now being choreographed. He noted an evening when three melees broke out simultaneously in different areas in Dili in a move that seemed designed to test the responses and capabilities of the over-stretched security forces.
There is concern that political parties are mobilizing and funding gangs in preparation for the upcoming elections. The source of the gangs’ cash, mobile phones and motorbikes is uncertain, but suspicions focus on political parties. For example, Korka, one of the largest “martial arts groups”, has ties with the ruling Fretilin party.
According to some estimates, as many as 70% of Dili youth are gang members. Many unemployed youth with no prospects join for status, reputation, money and illicit thrills. The emergence of a youth gang culture is yet another symptom of deep social malaise and a further impediment to stability.
There is a proliferation of gangs that distinguish themselves by scarification of upper arms with razor blade cuts in numerical patterns such as 77, 21, and 55 while some of the martial arts groups favor distinctive tattoos. These martial arts groups distinguish themselves from gangs by their organizational hierarchies, training and discipline, and many members hold regular jobs, but some members are also involved in violent confrontations with gangs and security forces.
The gangs maintain checkpoints in Dili where they shake down citizens and check for gang membership by having people roll up their sleeves. One young woman who studies in Australia was home for the holidays and described a harrowing experience of being stopped by drunken, metal bar brandishing gang members who told to take her jacket off so they could check her arms. She escaped on her motorbike when they lurched into the road to wave down a potentially more lucrative passing car.
I was told by several people never to walk around at night, especially alone. Japanese NGO workers spoke of their embassy requiring all nationals to return home by 8 PM unless they had informed others and had their own car and driver. They were strongly advised not to ride in taxis under any circumstances for fear of kidnapping or random violence.
This self-imposed curfew makes Dili eery in the evening; the gangs control the nights. The fear of gang violence creates a culture of intimidation that haunts all of Dili’s residents.
Human Rights and Justice
“How can we talk of human rights in East Timor? Respect for human rights requires the proper context and we do not have that.” Thus spoke Joaquim da Fonseca, a young thirtyish man with piercing eyes and long hair pulled back above a strikingly angular face and the slight frame of an ascetic. He has the air of a poet, speaks enigmatically like a philosopher and works as the human rights adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office where he has been learning the political ropes since he accepted the post last summer. Leaning back in his chair he observed that the transition from being an NGO activist to government actor has been frustrating and it is clear where he would rather be.
Joaquim da Fonseca
Fonseca admits feeling more influential as an outside critic where there are many channels to exercise influence. Inside government he is isolated by his lack of political ties and constrained in what he can say because of his position. He rues the weakness of his office in the face of other ministries all asserting competing agendas and claims on limited resources. In trying to promote human rights issues at cabinet meetings, he confesses frustration at hearing the “echo of one hand clapping.”
Blatant political manipulation of the justice system discredits it in the public’s eyes. Fonseca laments that, “Equality before the law is not fully observed. Those with political importance are given privileged treatment.”
I arrived in Dili shortly after the proceedings against Rogerio Lobato, the Interior Minister under PM Alkatiri were postponed. The postponement was taken as a barometer of the ruling political elite’s willingness to prosecute their own. Political interference in the trial was expected and the postponement was all the proof anyone needed. Rumors that one of the witnesses was attacked and fled Dili only add to speculation about a conspiracy.
Lobato is accused of providing weapons to hit squads for use against political opponents and Dr. Alkatiri’s ouster from office on June 26, 2006 is popularly ascribed to his knowledge of, and acquiescence to, this weapons transfer. President Gusmao threatened resignation after seeing damning evidence of Dr. Alkatiri’s complicity.
In March 2007 the former Interior Minister was found guilty and sentenced to seven and a half years in prison. In addition to the weapons transfer charges Lobato, still deputy chairman of Fretilin, was also found criminally negligent in the deaths of nine policemen, killed by soldiers in Dili, on May 24, 2006. He is appealing the ruling.
Given that Lobato’s conviction occurred amidst surging violence and turmoil in Dili, it is not clear that the troublemakers or their paymasters are paying attention. Perhaps in time, a restoration of basic security on the streets will give the public a chance to absorb the symbolism of the ruling elite convicting one of its own. Certainly it is a precedent that many would like the judiciary to build on.
Fonseca says that, “The number one human rights problem affecting Timor Leste is the lack of justice and accountability. It is so serious that it weakens public administration.” There is no deterrent to crime and so it spirals out of control because, “The culture of impunity has entered into the consciousness of the people.”
The problem of establishing a judicial system from scratch is being overtaken by events and burdened with a growing backlog of cases. Fonseca asserts that the breakdown of law and order in 2006, vigilante justice and the escalation of gang violence are symptomatic of a failed judicial system. Time is running out, he says, and “The government has to give more than lip service to justice and human rights.”
Commission on Truth and Friendship (CTF)
In an attempt to get Indonesian perpetrators to add their testimony to the record, the CTF was launched in the summer of 2005 with Indonesia covering two-thirds of expenses.  Political leaders in both nations hope that by establishing a common, conclusive truth about what happened in Timor Leste in 1999, Indonesia and Timor Leste will be able to put the past behind them and move forward without further recrimination. However, there is widespread concern among Timorese that the CTF emphasizes reaching closure, has no judicial mandate and ensures impunity for ranking perpetrators. Under its terms of reference, the CTF can make recommendations for amnesty that must be approved by the Timor-Leste Parliament.
The CTF’s mandate was extended for a year in 2006. In its first twelve months it did not hold a single public hearing, called no witnesses and failed to issue a progress report on its review and evaluation of the evidence presented by the CAVR or the Serious Crimes Unit (SCU) that issued numerous indictments and operated under UN auspices. The lack of transparency and progress has sparked widespread criticism of the CTF and many critics see no reason to continue with a charade aimed at providing Indonesian perpetrators immunity from prosecution.
Finally, in February 2007 the CTF held its first of five landmark hearings and there are plans to call some seventy witnesses in a series of hearings planned through June, 2007. The first high profile witness to testify was former Indonesia Foreign Minister Ali Alitas, long the most prominent apologist for Indonesia’s occupation of Timor Leste during the Suharto era. He claimed he was unaware of evidence that the Indonesian military was behind most of the 1999 slaughter and blamed Australia for being overzealous in sending troops to calm the strife. Performances like this—hedged and misleading—and significant differences in the type of questioning by commissioners from both nations suggest a disappointing outcome. The question is how to establish the truth if those testifying are less than brutally honest.
General Wiranto, General Kiki Syahnakrie, General Sadam Damiri, General Tono Suratman and militia leader Enrico Guterres  are also expected to take the stand and face high expectations from the Timorese side to come clean about their responsibility. Disappointment is likely.
The post-mortem on the first session indicates that the Timorese commissioners are disappointed in the exercise. Commissioner Aniceto Guterres from Timor Leste described the session as “imperfect” and characterized some of the Indonesian questioning as “stupid”. There are strong doubts about whether the truth alone will be enough to promote reconciliation without prosecution of those responsible for human rights abuses and other crimes.
The Timor Leste commissioners face significant political pressures at home and know that the findings of the CTF and its recommendations for amnesty will come under critical scrutiny. The Church, the CAVR Secretariat, and civil society organizations have repudiated the CTF and thus if it is to have any credibility it must come up with the goods—truthful and comprehensively forthright testimony by the witnesses—considered in light of the evidence collected by the SCU in its indictments and the rulings of Indonesia’s ad hoc Human Rights Court.
Critics believe that the ten-member commission’s main task is to improve bilateral relations rather than find the truth and promote justice. John Miller of the East Timor Indonesian Action Network refers to the CTF as a “whitewash” while Father Gusmao dismisses it as an exercise in “collective amnesia.” He says the problem is not that Timor Leste needs state-sponsored reconciliation with Indonesia, rather Timorese people need justice for the crimes committed and this means holding perpetrators accountable for their actions and choices.
Fonseca, the Prime Minister’s human rights advisor, says the arguments in favor of the CTF are deeply flawed and it is a “farce”. It will not produce conclusive proof or credible accountability and he believes that the TNI (Indonesian military) will emerge as the only beneficiary. The leadership in Dili, he says, has frankly admitted that the CTF is a political tool to achieve reconciliation and does not serve justice in any way He adds that the global political situation does not favor accountability for serious violations of human rights, pointing to the watered down human rights bodies of the UN.
Patrick Walsh and Reverend Vasconselos from the CAVR believe that the CTF will not close the window on justice because the public rejects it; there is no popular support for a rush to closure, especially given a lack of credible accountability by those deemed most responsible for the most serious crimes. The CAVR notes that the Indonesian Supreme Court recently ruled that it is contrary to international law to grant amnesty for crimes against humanity. The CAVR has also issued a critique of a proposal circulating in Dili’s Parliament concerning amnesty that involves the establishment of the Commission for Truth and Social Harmonization.  The CAVR Secretariat, inter alia, asks, “Will the prospect of amnesty help or hinder the restoration of law and order in Dili?”
The Asia Foundation’s Kim Hunter also doubts that the CTF will deliver the truth and without that it is hard to imagine it promoting real friendship. She suggests that the CTF is inadvertently useful in keeping the issue of accountability alive and high on the radar screen of public discourse, confounding government efforts to reach premature closure.
The problem with truth commissions despite their proliferation is that the findings and process don’t promote reconciliation. Public opinion polls in South Africa, arguably the most famous and ‘successful’ truth commission, indicate that two-thirds of the public was angrier about the past after the process concluded.  The search for a unifying TRUTH is elusive, opens old wounds and raises expectations that finding out what happened to whom and why will lead to consequences for the perpetrators.
Amnesty in exchange for testimony is not always acceptable to those affected by the crimes and must meet very strict criteria or runs the risk of discrediting the process. The CTF’s conditions for amnesty are not clear and the granting of immunity may spark recrimination rather than contribute to a healing process. There is also a danger as in Guatemala that the results of truth commissions will be ignored and drop off the political agenda. 
Timor Leste is a new state and has limited capacities, enormous problems and competing agendas. The CTF can only help the Timorese turn the page if it sheds more light on the planning by Indonesian military commanders, their Timorese militias and Indonesian government officials for the referendum in 1999 that led to the widespread violence, what they knew about this violence as it escalated and how they responded to the situation as it evolved.
Truth commissions often disappoint because they do not usually individualize responsibility; the investigations and indictments prepared by the SCU have fingered individuals who will be testifying at the CTF. To the extent that the CTF process ‘trumps’ the SCU process and the CAVR recommendations, justice, human rights and reconciliation in Timor Leste stand to suffer. Under such circumstances it is hard to imagine a social consensus advocating harmony and creating greater trust within Timor Leste and with Indonesia.  In this context the CTF may make a limited contribution by adding the testimony of the Indonesian perpetrators to the record without recommending immunity.
There should be no rush to closure on a tight timetable according to political dictates; it is clear that such an initiative is doomed because it is out of sync with public opinion in Timor Leste and does not reflect the Timorese desire for accountability. President Xanana Gusmao may be right that given all the current problems associated with poverty and inadequate governance, finding something approaching justice in a courtroom is neither a priority nor viable, at least for now. The window on justice remains open and the immediate task is to assemble as complete a record as possible to prepare for the time when the constellations of opportunity, circumstance and political will come into alignment.
Truth commissions are imperfect because they emerge from imperfect situations and flawed compromises and thus can be most helpful as a step in a longer process rather than serving as an end to the search for justice. In the case of Timor Leste, given the current reluctance of the international community to back an international tribunal, the choice is not between the CTF and trials, it is the alternative to doing nothing. On its own Timor Leste cannot force the Indonesian government to prosecute its own perpetrators nor ensure their extradition to face trial in Dili. What it can do is place the onus on the international community to eventually support an international tribunal by demonstrating good faith and exhausting available alternatives such as the CTF.
Timor Leste demonstrates that there are no quick fixes in nation building or in addressing the problems of post-conflict nations.
PM Ramos-Horta recently chided the UN for its hasty downsizing in 2002, saying that, “…even a Manhattan take-out restaurant needed at least a year or two to establish itself; it was reasonable to think it would take much longer to build a nation.”
Timor Leste stands at a critical juncture as it faces spiraling violence and lawlessness. There are no illusions that the elections in 2007 will resolve Timor Leste’s problems, bolster faith in democracy or even make the streets safe at night. Political leaders face a deeply skeptical public and share with the UN a crisis of credibility.
Achieving independence in 2002 was a dream come true that has, by 2007, morphed into a nightmare. The struggle for self-determination was a unifying experience that focused on ousting a common enemy. Now the Timorese are grappling with long suppressed divisions and competing agendas in the course of nation building. The leaders who led the struggle for freedom now face tasks and demands to which they are not accustomed and in some important ways may not be well-suited. The shining promise of independence has not delivered a better life for many who face grim circumstances and their frustrations can be seen in the piles of burning tires and barricades sprinkled around Dili on the eve of presidential elections. The political leadership also faces the problem of reining in their own inclinations honed as freedom fighters and also those of opportunists who are swelling the ranks of political parties. This is a fragile transition era in which impatience for results vies with the need for patient institution building and cultivating of good governance.
Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan Campus and a Japan Focus associate. He is the author of Japan’s Quiet Transformation. Social change and civil society in the twenty-first century.
This article was written for Japan Focus. Posted on March 12, 2007.