Subject: The Riot of 4 December 2002: Who Is To Blame?


João Boavida


The riot of 4 December 2002 took residents of Dili and news listeners and watchers worldwide by surprise for the extent of anger and violence that suddenly erupted and vanished in so short a time. Literally, in the twinkling of an eye, an estimated crowd of one thousand people took to the streets of Dili burning and looting, sending visitors scrambling for flight out of East Timor and top executive members rushing for secured hiding places, leaving a helpless public in a state of shock and surprise.

The target half or fully destroyed was selective and telling: The parliament house, government vehicles and motorbikes, Prime Minister’s private home and his relatives’, the mosque, the affluent “Hallo Mister” supermarket, two leading hotels namely Lorosa’e and Timor, few clothing and appliances stores to name but a few. It is noteworthy that equally accessible and vulnerable to looting, though untargeted, were public markets and street-side vending stalls owned and run by locals.

Whatever reason lies behind the event, the riot of 4 December requires a deeper reading, one that shifts from mere concerns about finding who is to blame to the interpretation of the intricacies of an unresolved past politics of the occupation and resistance including the failures of the defunct UNTAET. The timing of the riot came through too soon in the post-independence period and the degree of violence was so chilling, that to point at the government as the reason for the riot or to reproach any local group for the event may perhaps sound too naive. In fact, blaming local identity groups for the riot is to do the former UNTAET administration an unprecedented favour out of mere political ignorance and misjudgement.

In a short paper as this greater detailed discussion has its limitation. However it is hopeful that this paper somewhat contributes to providing the reader a different outlook of the protests and to influence those concerned not to take the ‘bottle-lid’ approach as UNTAET did to problem solving, as discussed below, but a conciliatory and open dialogue approach to events and issues with prospects for conflict. The arguments put forward in this paper build on informal interviews and the writer’s own interpretation and observation of the situation as it has developed thus far.


The violent protest of 4 December culminated a series of protests that took place during the six-month period as of the end of mission of UNTAET in 20 May 2002. During that brief period of six months East Timorese witnessed in Dili over 30 popular protests, setting an average of 5 protests monthly, save demonstrations, riots and roadblocks that took place in Liquica, Bobonaro, Baucau and Viqueque to name few districts. This is too much of a contradiction to give UNTAET a good reason for its claim of success.

Identity groups including CPD-RDTL, ex-Falintil combatants, university students, school students, ex-Indonesian public servants, border control officers, judges, workers, officials of rapid intervention unit, street-side-wanderers, each with their own motives have marched on the government palace shouting their pains of the current situation. Reasons commonly mentioned include unemployment, favouritism, and high university fee, police recruitment of ex-combatants, pension fees, employment and economic discontent.

A deeper reading of the protests however suggests that frustrations with the government, its structure and performance stem from popular disappointment manifested during the transitional administration of UNTAET and the motive was that the administration only favoured the participation of a handful of political players in the transitional process to the exclusion of the wider society. Additional reason claimed during that time was that UNTAET had simply ignored to consolidate the political space by not embarking upon the mopping of a chaotic political past and national reconstruction of infrastructures in the interest of the public. Illustrative of this is a popular catchphrase commonly expressed during the transitional administration, which goes: “… husik ba sira goza, ONU fila mak sira hare…” or ‘… let them be happy, they will see when UN has gone home…’. (My translation).

UNTAET had smartly played the devil’s trick on East Timorese by taking the ‘bottle-lid’ approach to avoiding solving problems of political nature during its 19-month-period of administration (October 1999 May 2002). The ‘bottle-lid’ approach refers to the technique UNTAET used for containing popular discontent and preventing it from spilling over in greater scale by keeping the top elite entertained with some cosmetic partnership consultation an approach that UNTAET used it close to perfection. With the departure of UNTAET, the mysterious hand that held the lid also vanished and the expected explosion followed giving way to the gradual build up of street crowds that culminated in the riot of 4 December 2002.

From Optimism to Pessimism

East Timorese in general were optimist that the end of Indonesian military occupation would mean a better house, a school or university for themselves or their children, a first paid job, a first pair of shoes, a plate of food richer and a roof of their own. Such was popular expectation and hope gained during the years of occupation, hopes that were also the source of strength and courage, which fueled the spirit of resistance for over 20 years.

However, after nineteen months of UN transitional administration and six months of independence, the much awaited social and economic benefits of ukun rasik an, or independence remain a dream not a reality. As hope fades out and optimism gives way to pessimism, frustration and disillusion have taken crowds to the streets to make public their pain. Youths in particular those who could afford travel expenses have opted for a quiet way of protest: over 500 of them have left the country in search of socio-economic opportunities in England, Ireland and elsewhere leaving behind their loved ones hoping that one day their own fortunes would improve because of the salaries earned in those countries. Others have gone back to Indonesia the country of the government they had fought in the first place, to join their relatives, friends or to pursue their studies. Many have gone quiet feeling useless and hopeless and trapped in their homes because of the lack of cash for internal transport and travel expenses.

As for the majority, the business of rural subsistence remains unchanged by the situation. The rural majority show a mixed feeling of indifference, misery and frustration when talking about the national government. They see themselves as not being affected by the national decisions but where local politics is concerned they are well aware of where, how and to whom the government resources or “projects” are allocated. As for instance a Senhor Antonio, an ex-political prisoner who lives in a rural sub-district of Baucau when asked about his opinion on the benefits of independence his reply was somewhat ironic: “Have UN people gone back? ...I have not been to Dili …to see independence... I was born a farmer, and I will die as farmer. I do not expect the decisions of central government to affect my life of a farmer for better or for worse… Ask those who benefit from government projects what they think of independence”. (My translation)

Meanwhile, the degree of violence countrywide is increasing at an alarming rate. Roadblocks, street fights, burning, police-civilian clash, youth intra-groups fighting, cattle thieving, house-break-ins have become the order of the day. Worse still, paramilitary groups seem to have found a niche in several western districts and their attacks on local communities have claimed so far six lives and several injured.


UNTAET had put too much premium on and rushed East Timorese toward multi-party elections without giving political groups much time to consolidate their structure and to formulate substantial policy alternatives for the electorate to chose. Whilst UNTAET excluded local population from participating in the transitional process, under local pressure, it established the National Consultative Council (NCC), which then expanded into the National Council (NC) and which like NCC; their existence was to provide a fig leaf of legitimacy to the “authoritarian rule of the SRSG”.

UNTAET left crucial questions about the character of and issues of potential conflict inherited from the politics of past occupation and resistance unquestioned and unmanaged. Questions include social and economic reintegration of ex-Falintil combatants and ex-political prisoners, CPD-RDTL, support scheme for war widows and orphans, management of elite fragmentation following the extinction of CNRT, program to control and to assemble handguns scattered throughout the country, vigorous modernizing bureaucrats as opposed to specialized offices minus specialized skills, to name a few.

In avoiding local politics, UNTAET failed to penetrate the thirteen districts and left them at the mercy of a highly centralized system of administration it had created, which only helped to distance the districts further from Dili. Indeed, during the period of nineteen months, UNTAET seemed to administer East Timor out of a fictitious ivory tower as if it was ruling a colony of unknown and backward subjects who lacked a culture, a social structure and a history.

An effective bureaucracy presupposes and requires well-informed, experienced and vigorous professional experts. For many so-called UNTAET international staffs experience and expertise became an overnight achievement as long as they were 500 kilometres away from home and spoke a language foreign to locals. Yet, some came as restaurant chefs, tourists and backpackers and through the patronage pervading in the system, they were recruited and trusted with the most sophisticated and specialized job of leading East Timor and its people to democracy.

As UNTAET officials soon learnt that the workings of local politics were after all not as simple as they had expected, multi-party elections suddenly became the mission’s overnight main objective thus an ideal strategy for a successful exit ensued. The well-informed citizens knew only too well that as East Timorese went to the polling stations, the first independent government of East Timor was about to inherit a myriad of unresolved problems from past and contemporary politics including the politics of UNTAET. As I approached one of the polling boots in town on the multi-party Election Day in August 2001, I overheard someone in the queue saying: “Ita ba hili maka ne’e, maibe se los maka hatene sa problema de’it maka ONU sira sei husik hela mai ita...” or ‘We are going to vote now but who knows for sure the kind of problems we are about to inherit from UNTAET…” (My translation).

The result of the ballots put in place a majority democracy in preference to a consensus democracy. The latter political option would have been an ideal starting point for building East Timor nation and state in this particular phase of democratisation. This option would have diffused power throughout members of the executive and the different groups formal or informal an ideal approach to minimize any negative effects of elite fragmentation, if a stable democratisation was to be secured.

The Government

The country’s current economic setting is illustrative of a pre-industrial society without a single base of manufacturing and processing of goods, let alone a single exploited commodity for export-earnings. The rumours go that the apparent cash affluence in Dili originates largely from a pyramid of black-market profiteers found across the border in West Timor that truck in soft drinks, clove-cigarettes, cooking ingredients and construction materials and subsequently sold at high prices in kiosks throughout the country, including cash replenishing the street-foreign-currency-exchange. In the short-term, this is beneficial to the many that have no access to state resources, but in the long-term, its cumulative impact will prove negative to efforts of building a national economy.

Against such economic backdrop, the government shoulders two enormous tasks and both are equally challenging and ambiguous. First task is how to meet the needs of a highly demanding society in a period of acute shortages perhaps a demand deserving acknowledgment given the history of 25 years of popular pain. The second task is the challenge of administering a newly born pre-industrial country with and through the pockets of foreign donors. The first task could push the government to make several and repetitive mistakes over the time for the sheer pressure of continuous popular demand on the one hand, and the situational advantage taken by potential spoiling groups or individuals on the other hand. The second task is equally complex. As seen in most third world countries, poor wage employment coupled with limited resources and underprovided job opportunities in private sectors have meant that the state has become an important source of mining resources and public offices have become an unique opportunity for personal enrichment. Indeed, in situations of short supply and uneven distribution of resources, corruption could inevitably become endemic in and outside of public departments.

It is my view that the government own political survival will depend largely on how well or bad the executive will respond to these two challenges. Below is a list of selected issues and themes offering potential scenarios in formation, with respective brief discussions for their political importance as being areas that will meet head-on with the government as it undertakes the two stated tasks above:

Scenario 1: Government and State-building

State building in its first stage presupposes the capacity of the government to reach out to the electorate countrywide for public confidence building. Popular respect for and trust in the government, as seen elsewhere, often come through the capacity of the leadership to stand and deliver towards building and securing a welfare state, where community basic needs are met through the implementation of existing public policies. This requires a degree of decentralization of the executive power, so that authorities at periphery or district levels have more room and flexibility to take initiatives as well as to lead and to take decisions.

Scenario 2: Government and public policy

It has become apparent that so far, the government has not been capable to implement its policy countrywide, let alone the implementation or the enforcement of this, of regulations approved thus far by the legislative. Obviously, this is a slow-moving process but nonetheless bureaucratic centralization, limited skills and capacity, and lack of districts penetration are perhaps the main inhibiting obstacles as identified in this starting-off period. Lessons learnt elsewhere show that factors such as the misuse of state resources and inflated bureaucracies coupled with those already mentioned could also contribute to inhibiting the state capacity of policy implementation. Where and when this situation becomes obvious the implementation of public policy vegetates and the designing process persists more as an exercise of public relations to justify and maintain the flow of foreign aid, a well known practice in some third world countries.

Scenario 3: Government and Bureaucracy

The government has taken over from UNTAET the established bureaucratic machinery well furnished with specialized offices but with poor and underprovided specialized staffs and skills. Once such bureaucratic machinery has attempted to run its full course, it will in time jam somewhere along the process leaving the districts at the mercy of inattention, as Dili becomes the only and central focus of interest. This fact will be made worse by the relatively oversized number of top level executive (ministers, vice-ministers and state secretaries totalling over 20) because initiatives at the middle management not to mention lower levels will be likely repressed, modus operandi will be tightly complied and delegated authority will be out of question. Other detrimental possibility as has happened elsewhere in third world political cultures, higher-ranking officers feel obliged to return the favours of their relatives, friends, political groups and business partners. In this scenario, bureaucracy is likely to result in stagnation for its very inefficiency and extravagancy.

Scenario 4: State and Party

The apparent fusion of state and party is not advisable if an effective and autonomous state leadership is to be encouraged and developed. For example, few top executive officials concomitantly hold key party posts. In the short-term, this blurred division between state and party can repress the decentralization of power while in the long term it will create a credibility gap due to poor and biased performance of officials concerned. Furthermore, this unclear dividing line between the state and party could generate unnecessary confusion as to where the state authority lies: with the government or with the party.

Scenario 5: Government, ex-Falintil Combatants and CPD-RDTL

This love-hate triangular affair has naturally developed over the time, and it is here to stay with or without a third party’s initiative and effort to overcome whatever ideological and political differences the trio has. A similar situation was found in Mozambique and Angola and both countries provide a good case in point. The government can find in members of both ex-Falintil and CPD-RDTL a good partner just as it can also find in them a cruel opponent, depending on how the relationship will progress over the time.

Nevertheless, it is in the interest of the public that any serious political fist-cuffs are to be contained and peacefully managed but for this to be possible, a program for the social and economic reintegration of ex-combatants must be a reality in both planning and implementation. Once ex-combatants have their needs met, CPD-RDTL will have less room for further manoeuvrings. However, in such situations a solution to one group often means a problem to other groupings that is, new problems of other nature will emerge and different groups will claim their share in the equation.

Scenario 6: Executive, Legislative and Judiciary

The executive is currently enjoying and taking for granted the support of a disciplined Fretilin majority in the legislative assembly this is an expected natural outcome of the working of majority democracy, as long as the assembly remains conscious and alert of the fact that one of its multifunctions is to check on the power of the executive. To encourage that the assembly remains committed to that function and to many others, one important factor is to have a strong and independent judiciary system. Otherwise, the situation as it stands, when coupled with a weak legal system it will provide the executive a greater concentration of power.

Scenario 7: Government and Subsistence System

It sounds rather clumsy to discuss ‘subsistence system’ rather than economic system. The reason is that subsistence system still largely determines the livelihood of East Timorese countrywide. In the current system of subsistence, production, consumption and investment, let alone income, spending and saving as they are understood and practiced in the modern market-economy, are still foreign in theory and practice to almost all households nationwide. The kind and level of quantity and quality of consumer spending are just not there to act as the pull and push factor needed to affect investment, employment and general prosperity. As already mentioned, essential goods that are shipped in or trucked in from neighbouring countries, lacking price-fixing, are sold at extremely high prices that even those who are formally employed in private and public sectors complain about the fact. This reality indeed places the government in a very weak position from which to attempt an economic development.


The state has yet to penetrate the social fabric of the wider community; in the countryside, it is true that the government has little or no focus of attention. As Senhor Antonio has pointed out independence has come to Dili but he has not been to Dili to see it just as he was not sure if UNTAET had left the country or was still in Dili. Freedom that came with independence has yet to bring along social and economic rewards to the majority. Youths continue to leave the country in search of the benefits of independence and freedom elsewhere. The remaining majority will keep demanding their price of resistance and their piece of the independence cake. Looting and burning are not an ideal means through which to make one’s frustration public. Likewise, multi-party elections cannot solve serious problems of economic poverty nor they can provide solutions to social and political inequalities. Political independence and social freedom arrived but who is to blame for the absence of economic prosperity, so remains the question. As long as expectations and hopes remain, East Timorese can only blame themselves for having left the defunct UNTAET get away with its failures and unmet social and political obligations.

REFERENCES Boavida, J. (2001) “Much Politics About Food Aid: The Risk of Overlooking the Immediate Danger”, UN OCHA, Dili, East Timor.

Boavida, J. (1999) “Managing Differences and Setting the Right Institutional Mechanism During the Transitional Administration: A Report on the Current Situation”, UNAMET, Dili, East Timor.

Chopra, J. (2002) “Building State Failure in East Timor”, Brown University, Rhode Island, USA.

João Boavida is a freelance consultant and a part-time lecturer in Comparative Political Systems. He has worked with International Non-Government Organizations (INGOs) and International UN Agencies including UNDP and UNESCO in Malawi, Tanzania, England, Mozambique and Greece. He has served as Political Officer for the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET), as Political Advisor for United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid (OCHA), and as Political/Constitutional Affairs Officer and Civic Education Officer for the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET). (Email Contact:; Mobile Phone: ++ 61 (0) 419175348)

East Timor, December 2002

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