Much has
been written in recent days about the complex army/police/political
divisions in East Timor. But there are other reasons for the recent
violence in East Timor which are not being addressed. These speak of a government which has consistently failed to
appreciate the needs of the people. Remote, imperious and at times
almost embarrassingly out of touch, it has walked the state to this
point and now conveniently is waiting for others to enter and clean up
the mess.

Simple reason first. Approximately 96% of young
adult Timorese males are unemployed. In Timor, disaffected youths hang
about on virtually every street corner. During 2004-2005 numerous
incidents of “gang warfare” occurred, centring on the activities of so
called martial arts groups where young men flocked for want of anything
better to do. The government was conspicuous in its absence of
any commentary in relation to the security risk that this situation
posed. The Minister for the Interior, Rogerio Labato, stated that all
those who demonstrated should be viewed as criminals and if necessary
shot on sight.

More complex reasons look at police impunity,
increasing government authoritarianism, the erosion of civil liberties
such as the right to protest and increasing allegations of police
brutality, to name just a few of the live issues in East Timor.

The essential collapse of the justice system and the decision to make
Portuguese the official language are inextricably linked. The
implications of the decision on the part of the then provisional
government were not initially fully grasped. Aside from the distance it
created between Timor and its Australian neighbours, it effectively
created a two-tier society: 87% who could not speak Portuguese were
effectively excluded from government while the remaining 13% (US
Department of State figures, September 2005) representing the remains of
the colonial elite and the diaspora who now held almost complete

It seems the scale of the language problem was not fully understood. An
expensive and disastrous UN-sponsored justice program
sent potential judicial candidates to Portugal for training, where
their hosts were surprised that none spoke
Portuguese. Subsequently, the
Supreme Court was staffed with Portuguese nationals and Portuguese-speaking jurists from the
Timorese diaspora. Local jurists were allowed to
practise law while completing a three-year course in law and language. Almost immediately, tensions emerged
between Timorese jurists and their Portuguese
counterparts, due to the international staff’s perceived arrogance and
disregard of the law of the land. To make matters worse,
trainee jurists had to sit a qualifying examination despite effectively
studying part time. Inevitably,
all those who sat the examination failed, and were subsequently
dismissed from practising law and forced to re-take the three-year
course. Since then Timorese involvement in the judicial
process has dropped to negligible levels, removing justice from
national jurists and removing credibility in the eyes of the general

The quality of justice dispensed cannot be said to
have improved either. Disturbing allegations of
police rape and torture seem to have been presented to the courts and
then simply removed from the
docket – neither prosecutors
nor judges seem to have been willing to act. While the UN could be blamed for the current situation, its operations
are directed by the will of its membership and that of the national
government. This bind has led to the abandonment of the
Serious Crimes Process against the will of the Timorese people but in
line with the will of the government. It has also created a court
divorced both from the rule of law and the participation of
the people of East Timor, but firmly entrenching the emerging
elite. The results can now be seen on the streets of Dili.

Peter Fray

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