Riot roundup from Timor-Leste

There was some trouble in Timor-Leste recently that raises a number of questions as the young country gears up for presidential and parliamentary elections next year. If the peace in Timor-Leste is as solid and sustainable as the country's leaders have made out then there is really nothing to worry about, but if, on the other hand, we are starting to see the elites jostling for position away from the political arena, then the peace in Timor-Leste may be a lot more fragile that we often give credit for. It's all well and good to promote the idea of peace being the absence of violence, but sustainable peace, in my mind, is actually a lot more complex and encompasses social justice and socioeconomic development.

What I mean by this is that it's great that Timor-Leste is experiencing a relatively lengthy period without direct violence, but examples of indirect violence — such as poverty, hunger, discrimination and social injustice — undermine this. Not only that, but the recent incident in Zumalai, Covalima, is a return to direct violence that the country's police force was simply unable to deal with without calling on the support of the army. This is the same police force that the UN has handed over policing duties to in widely publicised ceremonies.

A little on the incident from AFP:

Angry mobs of martial arts gang members set fire to dozens of homes [August 15] as they rampaged through an East Timorese town after one of their number was killed in a stabbing, police said.

More than 100 houses as well as vehicles caught fire in the unrest in Zumalai, on East Timor's southern coast, a police officer told AFP on condition of anonymity.

He said the violence was "triggered" by the stabbing of a gang member, who was also a police intelligence agent, in the town on [August 14].

United Nations police returned full control of East Timor to the national force in March, more than four years after clashes between rival factions of the security forces threatened to push the country into civil war.

Fundasaun Mahein, a local NGO, quickly reacted to the incident:

The incident in which a PNTL officer was killed and houses burned in Zumalai-Suai was a big test of the capacity of the PNTL. When killings and house burnings occur, did the Cova Lima PNTL District Commander have the capacity to mobilize the district PNTL? Perhaps if the PNTL in Suai did not have enough capacity for this situation, did the Commander of Suai district have the capacity to ask for support from the PNTL National Command or not? Does the training of the PNTL include making large plans in order to deal with serious public
disturbances?

FM is concerned because the PNTL was not able to make a response which was able to stop the violence in Suai. Incidents like this continually occur, but why did the PNTL not make preparations?

Increasing the PNTL’s capacity, must be based on the domestic threats, because such capacity will make a quick response to some incidents in this country. Public disturbances such as in Zumalai-Suai are a big test of the capacity of the PNTL, a test which, in this case, the PNTL failed.

Because incidents like Zumalai-Suai will happen even more during the Presidential and Parliamentary elections, FM must ask, is the PNTL ready for 2012 or not?

The president publicly condemned the incident, as reported by Radio Timor-Leste:

President Jose Ramos Horta has strongly condemned the recent violent weekend in Zumalai, the southern district of Covalima. "I condemn the martial arts group members who killed a police officer and burned down innocent people's homes. These people should be punished and the court should take strong action against them as it is outlined in the law," he said. The president made the comments in relation to the clash which happened in Zumalai recently involving martial art clubs. The violence has left one police officer killed and about 220 houses were set on fire. The police and the defense force have been deployed in the area to restore situation.

Police have apparently made 14 arrests, according to Diario:

Investigation Police Service (SIC) Commander, Calisto Gonzaga said there were 14 suspects had been locked provisionally in Becora jail regarding the recent violence in Zumalai. Gonzaga affirmed that these 14 was held in Suai District Court and it had been decided to imprison them provisionally for further legal process.

The highly influential Bishop Belo has also chimed in, according to Diario:

Former Dili Diocese Bishop, Monsignor Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, said he was very concerned about the recent violence that happened in Zumalai… Belo said he always followed security situations in the country, but he was concerned about the recent acts of violence in Zumalai which left a police officer dead. "I am very sad to hear about violence in Zumalai. We have gained our independence, why should people kill one another and burn other people's houses?" he said.

It's difficult to dig up more info without actually being in the country, but suffice to say, there is a lot to be concerned about and a lot of questions that need answering.

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