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East Timorís elections: peace and security challenges

By Dionisio Da Cruz Pereira - posted Friday, 16 March 2012


With one day remaining before the East Timorese head to the polls to elect their new president, concerns have been raised by some political observers as to whether the country’s security personnel – the police and the army – will be able to tackle any security challenge that may arise before and after the elections.

Recent International Crisis Group report stated that “as campaign season approaches and the political temperature rises, law enforcement capacity remains weak and this means the sources of potential security risks are many” (Crisis Group, 2012, p. 1). The report also called on United Nations to continue assist East Timor security forces to effectively respond to any future security threat.

This report suggests that even though East Timor has made significant improvement in security sector, peace remains fragility. Inability of the security forces to deter any future potential security threat would subsequently undermine peace in the country.

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Recently the incumbent President, Ramos Horta publicly stated that the elections will be peaceful. Horta declared that he has full confidence in the country’ security personnel to tackle any problem that may arise during and after the elections. Indeed, unlike in the 2007 elections where both the army and police pitched against each other, this year elections the two institutions appeared to have had high level of cooperation to deal with security problems.

By far the presidential campaigns have been peaceful despite some minor incidents. During the recent presidential campaign at the district town of Baucau, for example, supporters of FRETILIN party removed pamphlets pertaining to the independent candidate, Taur Matan Ruak. In a country where voter education is lacking, such incident could easily lead to full scale violence. Both candidates instead called for calm and urged their supporters to respect each other without further engaging in violent acts.

Other incidents included the throw of Molotov cocktails by an unknown suspect into the offices of the National Election Commission (CNE) and the Technical Secretariat for the Administrations of Election (STAE). In spite of the incident, the country’s authorities reacted swiftly by calling on the national police to thoroughly investigate the case and arrest the mastermind behind the attacks. In both incidents, the army and police showed full restraint and not taking side with one particular group.

The outcome of the upcoming elections will determine whether East Timor is ready to govern itself or not. The elections are not just about electing the new president or choosing the new government, but also about convincing the international community that East Timor is ready to assume full responsibility in maintaining overall security situation in the country.

Peace and security issues in the coming elections need to be addressed due to the following reasons. Firstly, the United Nations (UN) mission is expected to wrap up its mission towards end of this year. This will lead to significant reduction in number of UN presence in the country. In addition, the UN departure also coincides with the withdrawal large number of the International Stabilization Force (ISF).

Presently it is estimated that around 400 Australian soldiers as well as 70-member New Zealand force remain in East Timor as part of the International Stabilization Force (ISF) which has operated since 2006.  The primary role of ISF is to empower the country’s security personnel to effectively address security issues after the UN departure.

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Furthermore, the ISF in close cooperation with the United Nations also assist the government in reforming the army and police. The main objective of the reform is to ensure both institutions are fully functioning and not engaging any violent act that precipitated the 2006 military crisis. 

This indicates that that when the ISF and United Nations missions end this year, the newly elected government will take full responsibility of the security situation in the country. The ability of East Timor’ security forces to ensure peaceful elections will be a key indicator for the complete withdrawals of the UN mission and ISF by the end of this year.

Secondly, given East Timor is currently seeking membership within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), undoubtedly these elections will be closely monitored and watched by the members of ASEAN. This can argued that anything that may trigger post-election violence will undermine East-Timor’s application to join the association.

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About the Author

Dionisio Da Cruz Pereira is pursuing an M.Sc in International Development at the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom.

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