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East Timor faces unrest unless security is boosted, group says

Bloomberg News - January 18 2008

Michael Heath – East Timor faces renewed violence unless it reorganizes the army and police, the International Crisis Group said, almost two years after clashes between security force factions drove 155,000 people from their homes.

"The government has a chance – while international troops maintain basic security and the United Nations offers assistance – to conduct genuine reform in the security sector," John Virgoe, the Brussels-based group's Southeast Asian project director, said in an e-mailed statement.

East Timor's police suffer from low status and an excess of political interference, according to the group. The army still trades on its heroism in resisting the 24-year Indonesian occupation and hasn't found a new role.

Violence in the former Portuguese colony, also known as Timor Leste, erupted in March 2006 after then-Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri fired a third of the armed forces for desertion, prompting clashes that resulted in the deaths of 37 people and forced about 15 percent of the population from their homes.

Australian-led peacekeepers and UN police were deployed in May 2006 to help restore stability in the country, which borders part of Indonesia on an island north of Australia.

East Timor experienced more unrest in August last year when the Fretilin party was excluded from government for the first time since East Timor gained independence from Indonesia in 2002.

Former President Xanana Gusmao assembled a three-party coalition without Fretilin following elections held on June 30.

Symptom, cause

"The security sector's problems are both a cause and a symptom of wider political conflict," Robert Templer, the group's Asia program director, said in the statement. "Unless there is a non-partisan commitment to the reform process, the security forces are likely to remain politicized and volatile."

The new government must move quickly to overhaul the security forces because international goodwill isn't inexhaustible and there are already signs of "donor fatigue," the group said.

It also warned against the government's plan to transfer responsibility for border management from the police to the army. It said the move may lead to increased tension along the poorly demarcated border with Indonesia, which has a heavy military presence on the frontier.