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  • Timor-Leste:A More Confident or Overconfident Foreign Policy Actor?
  • Selver B. Sahin (bio)

The year 2011 in Timor-Leste was marked by the national leadership's growing confidence in the governance of the country's challenging institutional and political affairs. This confidence, which is essentially about the ability to demonstrate sovereign state identity, has developed against a background of compounding tensions between the Gusmão-led Parliamentary Majority Alliance (AMP) government and the UN mission (United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste, UNMIT) and the flow of increasing offshore petroleum revenues over the past few years. It has been manifest in the emphasis Timorese leaders placed on different platforms throughout 2011 on three key policy objectives prioritized in the context of a broader nation-building process: phasing out the foreign military and civilian presence; joining ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations); and setting a model for "post-conflict" development. A most recent example of this approach can be noted in Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão's speech in September before the UN General Assembly, where he proudly cited the national petroleum fund's $8.9 billion balance to "transform Timor-Leste from a low income country to an upper middle income country" over the next two decades by maintaining the recent high economic growth rates.1

Indeed, Timorese political leaders, enabled by a bourgeoning oil and gas wealth, have already acted in considerable autonomy from the UN mandate. This is evident in the fields of justice and security sector reform, where the Gusmão government has largely ignored UNMIT's advice on clearly delineating the roles of the military and the police, and establishing accountability for the crimes committed during the 2006 violence.2 Already marginalized from the political process, the [End Page 341] UN mission is planning to pull out following the completion of the presidential and parliamentary polls in 2012. The drawdown of foreign troops and civilian support staff signifies the political leadership's claim for Timor-Leste's transition from conflict to development. It has also constituted a significant component of the government's efforts to allay the objection of some ASEAN members to the admission of their small and still institutionally weak state. The government's membership strategy has been based on a promise that Dili's accession would not become a "burden" for the regional grouping. In this regard, Timorese politicians sought to assure the ASEAN capitals that they would not be seeking any financial assistance but be relying on their own resources to keep up with ASEAN's community-building activities. Lastly, the national leadership's political confidence manifests itself in the government's assumption of the chairmanship of the "g7+" initiative. Functioning as a forum of "fragile" and "post-conflict" societies, the group promotes the construction of global mechanisms towards improving aid effectiveness and supporting development processes in these countries.

This new-found confidence can be seen as natural having come after a long history of conflict and a period of unrest and instability after independence. Yet, a balanced appreciation of the political and social outlook in Timor-Leste over the last year must also take into consideration the ongoing challenges faced by the country particularly in relation to institutional and socio-economic development processes.

Developments in Domestic Security, Politics, and the Economy

The National Police of Timor-Leste (PNTL), which formally operated under the authority of the UN police (UNPOL) since August 2006, took over all policing responsibilities at a public ceremony held on 27 March 2011. PNTL's resumption of the executive policing responsibility for a second time since its creation in 2000 is significant in terms of the organization's operational and institutional development. The UN mission will maintain its police presence of around 1,200 personnel and provide monitoring activities until the completion of the presidential and parliamentary elections, and will then continue with the planned drawdown process.

On the other hand, shortly after the handover ceremony, Timorese police commander Longuinhos Monteiro commented at a press conference on the police response in situations of public disturbance: "violence will meet violence". Monteiro's comments raised concerns among foreign observers regarding the [End Page 342] future direction of police development...


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