Subject: ST: East Timor Disorder: No Military Disciplinary Code, No Defence Policy

The Straits Times (Singapore) Thursday, March 23, 2006


Disorder Among Timor Forces

Nearly four years after independence, Timor Leste still does not have a military disciplinary code, let alone a defence policy

By Loro Horta For The Straits Times

ON FEB 8, some 350 officers and soldiers from Timor Leste's small defence force abandoned their posts and marched to the presidential palace. The unarmed soldiers were protesting against ill treatment, discriminatory practices and poor conditions within the Timorese Defence Forces (FDTL).

After two unsuccessful attempts at mediating the crisis, the young nation's charismatic and widely respected President, Mr Xanana Gusmao, gave the mutineers an ultimatum: 'Return to your posts and you shall not face court martial, or face the consequences of doing otherwise.'

Only 25 of them accepted the offer.

Since its creation in 2002, the FDTL, or Forcas Armadas de Defesa de Timor Leste, has faced serious disciplinary problems. Before the Feb 8 incident, 60 other personnel, including a major, had been charged for indiscipline.

Most observers explain the current problem as something to be expected when a 24-year-old guerilla force is transformed into a regular army. While this explanation may have some merit, it fails to address far more fundamental issues.

First of all, most of the disciplinary cases involved young soldiers who have had little or no participation in the war of national liberation. Most of them are new conscripts, having joined only in 2002. Therefore, the causes of the current military crisis in Timor Leste are far deeper and may have severe consequences for the young nation if not properly addressed.

Regionalism is one such cause fuelling the crisis. During the war for national liberation against the Suharto regime of Indonesia, most of the military campaigns took place on the eastern side of the island. This was due to the geographical conditions favourable to guerilla warfare and to the fact that the western part of the country was too close to the Indonesian border.

As a result, most of the guerilla forces were made up of people from the east, or Loro Sae. Indeed, almost all of the new army's high-ranking officers are easterners.

This situation has led many to accuse the FDTL of being a firaku, or eastern-dominated force. Soldiers originating from the western part of the country have accused those from the east of favouritism in promotion and double standards when it comes to discipline.

To complicate matters further, Timor's National Police Force, the PNTL, has a high number of western personnel, particularly among its senior officers. Once again, it was the demands of the war of national liberation that created this situation. The more educated and urbanised people, suited for police work, came from the western side of the island and many had served previously in the Indonesian bureaucracy, giving them the advantage of experience.

President Gusmao's strategy of promoting national reconciliation allowed for the integration of many former Indonesian functionaries and pro-autonomy elements into the security forces, especially the police force. PNTL'S current commander, Commissioner Paulo Martins, was a former colonel in the Indonesian police.

This has led many in the military to see the 3,500-strong police force as illegitimate and western-dominated. The need to focus on internal security, rather than external threats, due to remarkable improvements in relations with Jakarta, means that the police force rather than the military has benefited from government attention. The international donor community's reluctance to fund the military further exacerbates the problem.

As a result, the PNTL is a far larger and better equipped force, perceived to enjoy a higher standing within Timorese society, while the military, which claims - and rightly so - to have made the most sacrifices in the struggle for national liberation, is being marginalised.

The rivalry between the military and the police is clearly demonstrated by the type of disciplinary cases reported in the FDTL. Nearly 70 per cent of the cases involved confrontations of one type or another, between police officers and military personnel and invariably, the regionalism element was a contributing factor.

The root causes of the current military crisis in Timor Leste are deep and not easy to solve overnight. Confidence-building measures between the two forces - the police and the military - are critically needed, particularly among the rank and file.

Nearly four years after independence, Timor Leste does not yet possess a military disciplinary code, let alone a defence policy.

Addressing some of these deficiencies may go some way in taming Timor Leste's young and wild military. But, above all, there is a need to recognise that the current military crisis is more than just a problem of transition from a guerilla force to a regular one.

The writer is concluding his Master's degree in Strategic and Defence Studies at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Nanyang Technological University. He previously worked for the United Nations and was an adviser to the Timor Leste Defence Department.

--------------------- Joyo Indonesia News Service 

Back to March menu
February menu     
World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu