Dili – Following a peaceful presidential poll in March and several years of stability, international peacekeeping forces dispatched in 2006 to prevent the outbreak of civil war in Timor-Leste are preparing to pull out.
United Nations police are scheduled to depart at year's end, barring any major disruptions to the country's stability or wrongdoing in the upcoming run-off presidential poll on 16 April and parliamentary elections in July.
Timor-Leste, located mainly on the eastern half of the island of Timor, achieved independence in 1999 from Indonesia, whose brutal ruleover its neighbour was responsible for an estimated 180,000 Timorese. The country was subsequently administered by the UN until a new constitution and domestic government was formed in 2002.
The early years of autonomy were interrupted by national crises that shook the shallow foundations of the young democratic government.
In 2006 disgruntled soldiers mutinied in the capital, Dili, leaving dozens dead, causing thousands to flee the city, and risking the possibility of escalation into civil war. More than 150,000 people were displaced during violence between rival groups in the army, the police and the wider population.
Underlying the unrest were larger societal problems, such as high unemployment, which still stir tensions today. Various aid agencies estimate joblessness at around 20 percent in urban areas.
National turmoil renewed in 2008, when President Jose Ramos-Horta was shot several times during an attempted assassination, which he barely survived.
"The situation in Timor in 2012 is very different from the situation in Timor in 2006," Finn Reske-Nielsen, deputy head of the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT), a peacekeeping and governance-assistance operation initiated in 2006, told IRIN.
The institutional strength of the domestic police force, the Policia Nacional Timor Leste (PNTL), is "much greater than it was", and the functioning of the country's parliament and judiciary is "infinitely better," he noted.
In March 2011 the UN mission's police force, UNPOL, handed over management of national security to the PNTL, and the remaining 1,280 UN police personnel have largely stayed behind the scenes in a supportive capacity.
An anticipated spike in crime rates after the security handover did not materialize, but observers have concerns about the ability of the PNTL to serve as a dynamic civilian police force handling issues that range from traffic control to mediating domestic violence to investigating civilian murders.
"It hasn't yet been thought through what these 3,100 men and women [in the PNTL] will do on a day-to-day basis," said Gordon Peake, a visiting fellow at Australian National University who worked from 2008 to 2011 as a security adviser to Australian peacekeeping forces in Timor-Leste.
Cillian Nolan, a Timor-Leste specialist for the International Crisis Group (ICG), which researches violence and prevention measures, noted that "Many Timorese believe the police response is both partial and ineffective."
The departure of international peacekeepers is likely to be seen as an important symbolic step. Dili resident Anacleto Suares, 43, who served in a clandestine resistance network during Indonesian rule, said full independence would not be realized until the country was managing its security independently.
"We have achieved political independence, but not full independence," he commented. "The UN has helped us with problems related to violence but we need to start to take care of more things ourselves." Many veterans of Timor-Leste's liberation struggle would agree with him.
Fears of jeopardizing stability have caused sensitive justice matters to be either deferred or ignored altogether in the name of political expediency, said the ICG.
"Foremost among the steps that have been deferred has been prosecuting most of the crimes of the 2006 crisis, but this looks very unlikely to change," said Nolan, who was also the lead author of an ICG report published in February on Timor-Leste's security situation.
Between 2001 and 2004, the UN-backed Serious Crimes Unit indicted 394 people for crimes committed in 1999, and convicted 84 Timorese. All the Indonesians and many Timorese who were also indicted continue to enjoy sanctuary in Indonesia.
"There are few real disincentives for further political violence in Timor-Leste, and this will only change if there are more prosecutions of political violence and fewer pardons," said Nolan.
UNMIT maintains that it has not wavered in promoting accountability. "The UN position is clear: there has to be accountability," said Finn Reske-Nielsen. "UNMIT has a mandate, but a limited mandate."
Timor-Leste's leaders point out that the former Portuguese colony, a tiny island nation of 1.1 million, has limited leverage to demand the extradition of war criminals from its much larger neighbour, Indonesia. Moreover, there are few signs that the UN – or influential countries such as the US and Australia – are willing to make these demands on Timor-Leste's behalf.
Withdrawal timing and terms
As international peacekeepers are poised to pull out, the PNTL is asking for an infusion of US$11 million in funding over three years to purchase operational necessities such as cars, petrol and radios.
Though UNMIT is scheduled to close by year's end, a new UN mission with a role limited to governance support could be on the horizon.
According to Reske-Nielsen, "There seems to be a consensus across the [national and international] political spectrum... not to completely cut the ties with the political side of the UN mission." (bb/ds/he)