National security policy and structure: Police, military and ...
Defence and security in Timor-Leste
This paper gives a brief overview of my year in Timor-Leste from mid-2002, and an
insight into the genesis of the recent failings of the state, army and police.
I was contracted by the Australian Department of Defence to advise Ricardo da Costa
Ribeiro, the understudy to the United Nations Temporary Administration in East Timor
(UNTAET) National Security Adviser, who was expected to fill a similar position when
full executive authority, except for defence and security, was handed over to the new
government of Timor-Leste on 20 May 2002.
I arrived in July and soon after returned to Canberra with Ricardo, his four staff, and
representatives of the police, military, customs, and parliament for a two-week intensive
course in national security policy formulation and structures and crisis management. On
return we called on the Prime Minister (PM) to outline our programme and proceeded to
visit all 13 districts to interview government officials, police, military and non-
government organisations about their security concerns and discuss how they might be
resolved. We also participated in a series of seminars involving politicians, police,
military, and NGOs organised by the National Democratic Institute to discuss security
issues such as border control, the Oecussi enclave, maritime security, and the role of the
military, police and Parliament.
When our proposals were put to the PM he indicated that he would appoint someone to
manage security policy matters later. What he wanted now was an intelligence agency.
So how did this change in tasking occur? While we were doing our rounds of the districts
and participating in seminars the organic law covering the composition of government
appeared in Portuguese in September 2002. The only mention of security posts referred to
the Servico Nacional de Seguranca do Estado (SNSE), or national security service of the
state, an intelligence agency answerable directly to the PM. Our 7 November meeting
with the PM confirmed that Ricardo was not to be the National Security Adviser but the
head of the SNSE. Although the education and visits we had undertaken was not wasted
it meant that I no longer had a counterpart to help establish supporting structures to assist
the PM in the management of national security.
Although it was the prerogative of the PM to implement such changes, I was concerned
that the SNSE could be used for political purposes as well as tracking those suspected of
plotting politically motivated violence, especially in the absence of legislation specifying
who had authority to establish, control and oversee the SNSE.¹ As the UN was in charge
of security for another 18 months there was no rush to form a separate intelligence
agency, although training might be initiated. The priority should have been accorded to
establishing structures and processes to support the Government in fulfilling its
responsibility for defence and security that was scheduled to be transferred by the United
Nations Mission in East Timor (UNMISET) within the next 18 months.
Political differences between the PM and President over the responsibilities of the
Superior Council for Defence and Security (SCDS) were also a factor. Section 148 of the
constitution authorised the establishment of the SCDS to be chaired by the President but
left its composition, organisation and functions to be defined by law. The question being
debated was, would the SCDS be a titular body or would it have a more active role in
policy formulation and crisis management? This question was not answered until the law
covering the SDSC was passed in 2005 although the Internal Security Act of 2003
represented the PM’s claim to the central role in domestic security.
On 11 November 2002, I minuted the PM to confirm the changes outlined on 7
November and advised him that I would continue working on national security matters
and forward the results to his office after consultation with UNMISET and the relevant
departments and agencies. I also advised him of the issues that needed attention in the
near future particularly border security, maritime security, transfer of responsibility from
UNMISET, and development of the military and police and encouraged him to nominate
a minister for national security and small staff as soon as possible. No national security
minister/secretary of state or staff had been appointed before I left in mid-2003.
A draft national security overview was then circulated to the relevant ministers, UN
Police Commissioner, and UN military chief as a way of supporting UN concerns about
the lack of urgency in assuming responsibility for national security issues and to alert the
relevant authorities about the measures they needed to consider.
On 25 November 2002 the UN Police Commissioner responded to the draft in part as
The statement that … ‘there is concern the police do not have the right training,
logistical capacity, self confidence or even the right people and leadership to
maintain internal cohesion or win the people’s respect and cooperation’ is a broad
generalisation and without any real supporting facts.
Unattributed comments on the skill level and capabilities of the Service and its
officers are unhealthy and only serve to fuel speculation and discontent both
internally and externally, thus creating a destabilised security environment.
I would urge you to revise the draft, reflecting these views and concerns,
particularly with respect to specific comments made on the [Timor-Leste Police
Service] ... Such comments can only inflame dissatisfaction and destabilise key
capacity building objectives in an otherwise relatively stable environment.
Nine days later, on 4 December 2002, a demonstration to protest East Timorese police
handling of the arrest of a high school murder suspect the previous day turned riotous in
the course of which the Hello Mister supermarket was burnt out, the secretariat of
Parliament trashed, there houses of the Alkatiri family, including the PM’s home, were
torched and the Government bond store looted, among other damage. The police were
caught totally unprepared to control the riot and UN troops were flown in from the border
area next morning to guard against a repetition of the violence.
This incident clearly showed that the only national leader with the moral authority to mix
with and try to calm the rioters was the President. For all intents and purposes the
remainder of the civil leadership evaporated. Constitutionally, the President has little
executive power to address the key failings demonstrated and Parliament was dominated
by FRETILIN which in turn was owned by the PM and a small coterie of supporters with
all the reins of patronage in their hands.
The PM blamed the UN police for failing to detect the intentions of the demonstrators
and deal with the riot that followed. This hardened his resolve to be rid of the UN police
as quickly as possible and to harden the police, especially the urban riot squads in Dili
and Baucau. He also suspected the demonstration had been hijacked by his political
opponents to discredit his Government. He may have been right about this but having
scapegoats blinded him and many others to the deeply rooted cancer within the force, that
is, no respect for the separation of powers, and little public respect for the police force as
an institution, especially its leadership.
The East Timorese chief of police, Paulo Martins, who did not assume full responsibility
for police operations until early 2004, had been an officer in the Indonesian police in East
Timor and although he had been a sympathiser it was not a good image. The lack of
public respect meant he was beholden to his political masters and had little basis on
which to resist political interference by the minister in recruiting, assignment and
promotion of police officers or in the control of weapons and other matters, despite the
presence of UN police and the delegation of certain matters to the deputy minister.
The police chief’s lack of public stature, his inability to ward off political interference
and the lack of public respect for the institution inevitably sapped the morale and
cohesion of the force. In his national day address on 28 November 2002, the President
called for the sacking of the police minister, Rogero Lobato, on the grounds of
incompetence and suspected criminal activities in which he had involved the police.
For the PM to heed the President’s call would have brought criticism from within
FRETLIN, of which Lobato is a factional chief, and cut away one of the coterie of former
expatriates who had returned to East Timor and won control of FRETILIN from those
who had remained. So despite the flurry of police assessment missions and improved
training, administrative and logistical support and an armoury fit for a military, the
fundamental problem remained untreated until the force melted down, at least in Dili, on
28 April and totally on 25 May 2006 under a hail of fire from the military.
Meanwhile, in late 2002 and early 2003, the Government became agitated that
UNMISET forces had not been able to apprehend militia who had allegedly made several
incursions into the western regions unsettling the inhabitants and discouraging them from
attending their fields and cattle. After one such incident at Atsabe in January 2003, the
government sent the 1st Battalion F-FDTL, to show the UN how it should be done. The 1st
Battalion proceeded to show that it had not made the transition from guerrilla army to the
military of a democratic state but they attributed their failure to apprehend any militia to
local residents either sheltering or not fully cooperating with the F-FDTL. The fact that
most of the 1st Battalion were veterans from the east reinforced a pre-existing suspicion
that westerners had not been as zealous as easterners in the struggle for independence.
More objective assessments showed that there was no legal basis for the deployment of
the F-FDTL under the existing UN mandate or TL legislation and gross weaknesses in
doctrine, operational planning, command and control, communications and logistics.
Measures were put in place to correct some of these deficiencies but they were hindered
by the lack of ministerial support. Roque Rodrigues, the Secretary of State and later
Minister for Defence, was incapable of making decisions, despite the advice and support
of a string of defence and military advisers, and failed to give the F-FDTL a sense of
purpose or exercise policy control or oversight.
The F-FDTL’s sense of purposelessness was compounded by the PM’s decision, after the
Atsabe debacle, to form another para-military force, the Police Reserve Unit (URP) to
chase down armed gangs in the countryside and raise the threshold for calling military
The 2nd Battalion was formed using a cadre from the 1st Battalion at Metanaro
entrenching animosity between the veterans and new recruits that was eventually
expressed in east versus west terms and the mutiny that occurred in 2006. In the
meantime, attempts had been made to convert the F-FDTL into the cadre for a guerrilla
army and to establish close communal relations by conducting civic action missions but
many of the veterans had no interest in such projects and without effective political
leadership there was a limit to how effective such measures could be.
The Government tolerated the Defence Minister’s incompetence because of the military’s
constitutional and personal ties to the President and consequent doubts about their
political loyalty to the FRETILIN Government. This ambivalence was reflected in the
Internal Security Act proclaimed in late 2003 which finally established the ministerial
and agency coordination mechanisms for managing internal security policy and crises
that did not include the Minister for Defence or the military commander, and in the slow
progress in establishing the SCDS.
Leaving the military in limbo did nothing to alleviate occasional clashes between the
military and police that had occurred from 2002. In January 2004, there was yet another
more serious clash between the military and police at Los Palos which prompted the
establishment of three inquiries including one by the President. Most of the reports of
these enquiries have never been made public but found that the problems stemmed at
least in part from a poor definition of their role, low morale, discontent with low salaries,
lack of resources for communications, equipment and maintenance services, uncertain
respect for discipline and authority, poor training, and unresolved relations with former
combatants (UNSC 2004a;b).
The President’s statement of 23 March 2006 in relation to the mutiny/petitioners
complaints provides a litany of incidents and inquiries that should have warned the
Government that they had serious political problems with the military that needed to be
dealt with. Having ignored these warnings it is hardly surprising that the Government
spurned the demands of the mutineers/petitioners who commenced their protest in
February 2006 and allowed the military leaders to summarily dismiss them in March thus
initiating the meltdown of the army too.
The final act of the tragedy commenced with the demonstration outside the PM’s office
in Dili on 28 April. With the military commander away, the military’s hard-line deputy,
Colonel Lere, complied with the PM’s direction, without the President’s concurrence, to
deploy the military to disperse demonstrators after the police had failed to do so. The
killing of five protesters ignited fears of retaliation and a mass evacuation of the city
began. A police attack on the military commander’s house and the subsequent killing of
ten police under UN protection by the military was the culmination of a tragedy that had
its origins in the flames of the struggle for independence but was more directly the
responsibility of a Government that failed to heed the signs and find solutions that would
safeguard the community and preserve FRETILIN’s political interests.
Some observers have attributed the crisis to the failure of the international community to
ensure a workable constitution or demand elections based on the constitution, or for not
leaving security forces in the country long enough. This assumes that foreigners had the
authority and capacity to impose such things on the East Timorese, or that the results of
subsequent elections would have been different or that the presence of foreign forces
would have prevented the melt-down.
All UN reports warned of the weaknesses of the security forces and the need to address
these weaknesses through policy, education and training. There was no apparent need for
troops and the East Timorese foreign minister said in December 2005 that foreign troops
were no longer necessary (Kyodo 2005). Moreover, in a newspaper interview, the foreign
minister said, ‘It is too simplistic and hypocritical to blame the UN. It didn’t decide to
buy weapons for us. They didn’t say you need 3,000 police members. The UN gave
training as we requested. If the UN is blamed it would only be for leaving too soon; but
many of our own people and some of the leaders were in a hurry to see the backs of the
UN’ (The Jakarta Post 2006).
This does not mean that international actors cannot learn lessons from the crisis but they
can in no way be held responsible for it. Most of the lessons will relate to matters that are
very hard to solve. For example, how do you influence a government to change policies
without appearing to interfere in domestic affairs and invite a nationalist backlash? It also
raises the question of whether it is worthwhile providing technical assistance for
institutions and forces that have doubtful political foundations.
So what is to be done?
The immediate tasks are to restore order and get the refugees back home as quickly as
possible. That is now being done but restoring confidence in the Government’s
management of national security will take some time and is unlikely to be achieved under
the rule of the current Prime Minister. Meanwhile, the focus has to be on preparing for
the next elections and holding the country together in the meantime.
The capacity of the Government to formulate national security policy and manage crisis
also needs to be strengthened. According to the constitution that should be the
responsibility of the PM but he has neither the staff nor public confidence to do that
effectively. The President is trying to fill the void but limited constitutional powers
restrict what he can do, especially given the political tensions within the Government. It
may be necessary for international organisations to fill some of the gaps created by these
tensions until such time as the PM can be replaced.
More specific recommendations include:
• reviewing the need for the F-FTDL and either disband it, change its role, or give it
a specific functions, e.g. police support and disaster alleviation;
• while reviewing the F-FDTL, means should be found to pension off veterans who
no longer meet medical or professional standards and recruiting should be frozen;
• review the capacity of Parliament to exercise its legislative and oversight
responsibilities for national security;
• disband the Ministry for Defence and place it within the Home Affairs Ministry;
• appoint an experienced foreign police chief, supported by a small number of
advisers, to bridge cleavages in the force, bridge rivalry with the military, and
restore public respect for the force;
• review the organisation and operations of the police force as a whole including
• revive the concept of community policing to better suit Timor-Leste’s social
realities and build links with the communities;
• restore the integrity of police personnel recruitment, promotion and appointment
• put the necessary resources into communications and logistics of the force;
• ensure that the welfare of police is adequately provided for relative to the level of
the economy and improve the quality not quantity of police;
• streamline the national security policy and crisis management structures and
provide adequate trained staff;
• put more emphasis on civil and disciplined services leadership training; and
• rethink the intelligence requirements, structures and processes.
To conclude, the current crisis is not a failure of international support. It is the product of
the Government that failed to heed regular UN reports, the injunctions of the President
and the many inquiries that were conducted revealing the nature of the problem. The pity
is that the results of these inquiries were not made public so that more parliamentary and
community involvement could have been not brought to bear much earlier.
1. I was also of the view that small states are better advised to use a police special branch
model for intelligence purposes because crime and politically motivated violence are
often interrelated and because it reduces the burden of control, coordination and
oversight, makes best use of available expertise and minimises overheads.
The Jakarta Post 2006, ‘Timor-Leste’s police are very factionalised’, 17 June 2006.
Kyodo 2005, ‘East Timor seeks 1-year extension of UN mission’, Kyodo, 10 December
UNSC (United Nations Security Council) 2004a, ‘Report to the UNSC, 29 April 2004’,
UNSC 2004b, ‘On the findings of the Independent Inquiry Commission (IIC) for the
FALINTIL-F, 24 August 2004’, UNSC, Dili.