Dili – East Timor risks erupting in violence again if its government and the UN fail to quickly reform the country's security forces, which remain vulnerable to political abuse, a think-tank warned Friday.
The International Crisis Group (ICG), which monitors conflict-torn nations, said that the army here is still trading on its reputation for heroism in resisting the Indonesian occupation but has not yet found a new role.
"The police suffer from low status and an excess of political interference," the Brussels-based group warned in its report. "There is no national security policy and there are important gaps in security-related legislation."
East Timor finally won independence after a 24-year occupation by Indonesia in 2002. Factions from the army and police waged battled on Dili's streets four years later, leaving at least 37 people dead and forcing about 15 percent of the one million-strong population to flee their homes.
International peacekeepers and UN police were deployed after the violence and remain on patrol, but the situation remains fragile with most refugees still packing makeshift camps by night.
A particular issue needing attention by the Timorese, ICG said, is who does what in the forces, with lines dangerously blurred between the police and army.
While police typically have primary responsibility for internal security, "the Timorese police have not been given the resources, training and backing to fulfil this role effectively, and national leaders have been too ready to call in the army when disorder threatens."
The potential for political actors to use the army and police for their own purposes remains high and new legislation was needed to clarify who has the lead role in security sector police, the ICG said.
While the government still needed to conduct a comprehensive security review that the UN Security Council called for, it could meantime take constructive steps such as increasing salaries, improving donor coordination and addressing legislative gaps.
"The government has a chance – while international troops maintain basic security and the UN offers assistance – to conduct a genuine reform of the security sector, but it will have to move quickly," John Virgoe, the ICG's South East Asia project director, said in a statement accompanying the report.
International goodwill was not inexhaustible and signs of donor fatigue were already emerging, the report said.
The international community must also do a better job of coordinating its own support to the security sector and responding as the Timorese carry out their reforms, it said.