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ETAN Statement on Recent Events in Timor-Leste

Country Fragile, International Assistance, Justice Still Needed

For Immediate Release

Contact: John M. Miller (718) 596-7668; (917) 690-4391 (cell)

May 9 - The East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN) has followed recent events in Dili with deep concern. The recent riot regrettably resulted in injury and death, as well as property damage. As longtime supporters of Timor-Leste's self-determination and independence, we hope the peace that has prevailed on Dili since April 29 continues, and that those who fled in fear will soon return. While property can be rebuilt and political problems resolved, the traumatic experiences from several decades of repressive occupation and Indonesia's destructive withdrawal in 1999 continue to have serious impacts on the Timorese population.

Timor-Leste, a new nation borne of decades of military occupation, has made remarkable progress since 1999. However, its democracy, as well as public confidence in the leaderships’ ability to peacefully resolve conflicts, is fragile. Trauma recovery, economic development, the creation of a competent public administration and building physical and governmental infrastructure are long-term processes. Patience is required by the government, the population, and all others committed to a democratic Timor-Leste.

The inadequacies of governmental leadership and the shortcomings of international support for the transition to self-government have been illustrated by recent events. There are many lessons to be learned. We urge all parties to the recent disagreement within the military to seek a peaceful and lasting solution. As long as Timor-Leste has a military, structural and institutional weaknesses within that force must be addressed. The spirit of national unity and public service, which provided the foundation for the independence movement, must be re-established among military and civilian public officials. The government commission's investigation of the fired soldiers’ grievances, as well as any evaluation of the behavior of the police and military during recent months, must be transparent with results made public in a timely manner.

After so many traumatic experiences since 1975, Timor-Leste’s population is especially sensitive to rumors and displays of force, a situation worsened by an absence of accurate information. The telephone system must therefore be made reliable under peak loads, and with wider coverage. Journalists and other media personnel, both Timorese and international, need to better understand and avoid the inflammatory effects of unverified reports. To help regain public trust, the government should release the long-completed reports on the December 4, 2002 unrest in Dili, when police killed several demonstrators.

The Timor-Leste government and the international community should heed the Timorese people's cry for justice for crimes committed during the quarter-century Indonesian occupation. The UN and key governments, including the United States, must move beyond platitudes and actively pursue real accountability. We cannot but wonder if international and Timorese failures to ensure justice have led some in Timor-Leste to believe that their own use of violence would be met with similar impunity. As described in the recent report of Timor-Leste's Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR), several countries - including the U.S., U.K., and Australia - bear a special responsibility to ensure justice and accountability due to their actions and inaction from 1975 on. Reparations, as called for by the CAVR, would help alleviate the poverty and joblessness that have fueled some of the unrest and help rebuild the country’s infrastructure, which the Indonesian military so thoroughly destroyed during the brutal occupation supported by these countries.

The international community has invested heavily in Timor-Leste since 1999, but their job is not complete. Transforming a guerilla resistance into an official military is always difficult, but the roots of many of the current problems in Timor-Leste’s UN-designed military grow out of the international community’s failure to help Timor-Leste define and implement a clear mandate for and effective training of the defense force.

We urge the international community and the UN, especially the Security Council, to work with Timor-Leste to complete the nation-building and development tasks to which it has already committed. Security Council members should favorably consider the Timor-Leste government's request for a special UN office until after next year's presidential and parliamentary elections. These national elections, the first in independent Timor-Leste, will help determine if democracy has staying power in this new nation. In addition to electoral assistance, the Secretary-General has proposed continued human rights monitoring, military liaisons, police training advisers, and other assistance to improve the competence of government institutions. A formal mission will also increase the East Timorese people's sense of security over the coming year, whereas a premature end to the mission could escalate public fear.

International support and expertise are still needed but must be geared toward empowering the Timorese people to take full charge of their own destiny. It is not too late to keep Timor-Leste from joining the ranks of post-conflict “failed states.” However, the people of Timor-Leste will require further assistance to reach that goal -- to secure the self-determination for which they struggled many years and at such great human cost.

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See also: LH comments on current panic and situation in Dili




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