The big day has finally arrived for voters all across Timor-Leste and, for the first time since the restoration of independence in 2002, for Timorese also living in Australia and Portugal. According to the electoral administration body STAE, there are 747,583 Timorese voters registered to vote during the March 20 presidential election and the July legislative election.
Voting in Timor-Leste is a sacred duty, and the high turnout rates in this small Southeast Asian nation prove that. Timorese will still get up before dawn to walk to their nearest polling station to pierce their ballot paper.
Yet there is a sense of dramatic unease around these elections with the usual Timor-Leste pessimists casting shadows over the country’s ability to organize peaceful elections in 2017. These pessimists argue zealously that Timor-Leste will again fall into political crisis, centering their arguments mostly on historical records without deep analysis of the substantial advances or developments of the past 15 years since independence.
The memories of 2006 still pain the Timorese. The public is keenly aware that the country cannot afford to go back to a violent past. Doing so will have dire negative impacts on development efforts and will be another setback for the vigorous effort to democratize Timor-Leste, as dreamed of by the founding parents of the nation.
The National Police of Timor-Leste (PNTL) is one of the guarantees for smooth elections in 2017. As a preliminary internal and public force, it has grown to be increasingly professional and better-equipped in comparison with its condition during the last two elections.
Today’s PNTL has better mechanisms to guarantee its impartiality and immunity from political interference. These include, for example, a series of promotional and career regimes, salary regimes, capacity building programs, more openness to civilian oversight, and restructuring under the security sector reform initiatives undertaken since 2008.
Although the number of PNTL forces is still far from perfect, it has managed to cover all of the critical areas of the country, despite human and technical resource challenges. PNTL currently has Ofisial Polisial Suku-Village Police Officers (OPS) all over the country — one OPS for each of the 442 villages of Timor-Leste. This is a tremendous achievement. These OPS are further supported by sub-municipality and municipality commanders.
OPS have received various kinds of training and support from donor countries, namely New Zealand, Australia, Japan, the United States, and other national and international non-governmental organizations and partners.
In-line with that training and the philosophy of PNTL (community policing based on a participatory, community-engaging, dialogue approach), they have managed to address many of the latent problems in villages, such as land and property disputes, without resorting to the use of force.
These fundamental changes to PNTL structures and processes have evidently boosted its capability and effectiveness to respond to security concerns as well as earned stronger trust from the community. This is reflected in people’s changed perceptions of PNTL conduct. A 2015 survey commissioned by the Asia Foundation in Timor-Leste found that “while concerns about insecurity still reportedly affect half of the general population, there is a decreasing trend since 2008 when feelings of insecurity peaked.” Concern about insecurity has fallen from 73 percent in 2008 to 51 percent in 2015. Additionally, the survey also found that 99 percent of the general public and 100 percent of community leaders trust the PNTL.
PNTL, too, has been increasingly investing in the professionalism of its special units — not only their operations but, most importantly, their mentality. For instance, apart from capitalizing on capacity building in areas such as crisis and incident management, anti-terrorism, and other combat capacities, PNTL is also investing in their capacity to mediate without force, respect for human rights, respect of women and children, and support for vulnerable people and others.
Since 2014, PNTL has developed its 2014-2018 National Strategic Plan, which will enable it to fully institutionalize and embrace in a more holistic manner its Community Policing VIP methodology: increased Visibility to the public, Involvement with and by the public in combating crimes, and Professionalism in all PNTL conduct.
In addition, the maturity of the National Defense Force (F-FDTL) is also another guarantee of stability during the 2017 elections in Timor-Leste. There has been a strong complementarity between PNTL and F-FDTL in the context of national security since the 2006 crisis ended.
Both have been successfully and peacefully cooperating in responding to national security threats, which has been proven with the HALIBUR and HANITA operations, as well as in other coordinated or joint patrols to respond to low-level crimes.
The success in the suco chief (village chief) elections in 2016 bears out the recent and tangible successes of the partnership between both forces.
Clearly, their relations are not always smooth, and it is well known that from time to time there have been PNTL and F-FDTL clashes. However these incidents have been between individuals, and the fact that they have been professionally dealt with in accordance with legal regimes, structures, and official policies, including holding individuals accountable, shows the real professionalism of the two forces.
Furthermore, within F-FDTL alone, there is a very strong mechanism that guarantees their leadership and obedience to the state. One very important test was the polemic surrounding the exoneration of the chief of Defense Forces, an area of disagreement between the government and the president in 2016. Though their leadership endured overwhelming pressure, they maintained their discipline, professionalism, and impartiality to contribute to stability.
In an effort to guarantee these progressive dynamics, Prime Minister Rui de Araújo recently emphasized that there will be zero tolerance for members of security forces who are involved in political parties, let alone illegal groups threatening public order.
One very notable strategic step that Araujo took was to finalize the National Strategic Concept for Defense and Security as the security sector’s political document — a visionary and orientating document with which to strategically develop Timor-Leste’s security forces moving forward.
Among other things, the document carries one very important value: its relation to the historical conscience of Timor-Leste’s past. In making sure that any policy produced on security forces should be mindful of Timor-Leste past, it effectively guarantees that destructive history will never occur again.
All the more reason, then, for pessimists should have a bit of faith in Timor-Leste’s ability to thrive in the future.
Flavio Simoes is a locally-based political/security observer and a Chevening and Aikameli Trust Scholar
This article represents the views and opinions of the writer only, and cannot be, in any circumstances, associated with agencies or organizations that the writer work for.