BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Languages
Last Updated: Monday, 10 March 2008, 21:17 GMT
East Timor's window of opportunity
A month on from the shooting of East Timor's President Jose Ramos-Horta, the BBC's Lucy Williamson reports on the government's handling of the crisis.

Inmates at a camp holding 600 East Timorese rebel soldiers
The camp holding the rebel soldiers is being run with military precision
The road into the camp looks like any other - a wide, dusty road dotted with scrub.

Wire fences separate Dili's newest residents from their neighbours, and Australian soldiers stand guard at the gate.

Inside, it has the restless, transitory feel of no-man's-land.

Not many governments would be delighted by the arrival in the capital of 600 rebel soldiers, but East Timor's leaders are counting this as one of their greatest achievements.

A month ago, the leader of these rebel soldiers - Alfredo Reinado - led an attack on the country's president and prime minister.

Maj Reinado was killed in the attack, and the president seriously wounded.

The shooting shocked many of Mr Reinado's followers into coming back down to the capital and accepting the government's offer of negotiation.

The government also launched negotiations with Mr Reinado's two surviving deputies.

One is now in custody in Dili, having surrendered. The other is rumoured to be close to doing the same.

It all looks very different from the last time violence broke out in Dili.

In early 2006, half of East Timor's tiny army - 600 soldiers - had deserted, and then been sacked, after complaining of discrimination.

The situation rapidly spiralled into near-civil war - 38 people died, 150,000 fled their homes, and the government was forced out of power.

Joint command

This time, things have played out differently.

Members of the international policing force
An international stabilising force has been in East Timor since 2006
Negotiations seem to be working, and the government has stuck to the constitution and kept both the president and the parliament on board.

The prime minister's office is very pleased with itself.

One of the things it is most proud of is the establishment of a joint command to handle the operation - bringing together the army, known as F-FDTL, and the police, the PNTL.

For the past few weeks, the two security forces have been working together to support and back up the negotiations in the field.

This in itself is a miracle of sorts, according to political analyst Edward Rees.

"Eighteen months ago, PNTL high command and F-FDTL high command were situated 150m away from each other in their headquarters in the centre of Dili, exchanging gunfire," he explained.

"Today they're demonstrating a level of co-operation which would have been unthinkable."

But he added a note of caution, saying the forces' problems were far from over.

"PNTL and F-FDTL remain largely unreformed. They're still riddled with political differences, demonstrate poor discipline and neither is older than seven years old," Mr Rees said.

Skilfully handled

The need for reform of the security services became strikingly apparent when violence last broke out in 2006.

Inmates at a camp holding 600 East Timorese rebel soldiers
The rebels deserted from the army complaining of discrimination
Then, the army and police were fighting each other and political influence in the armed forces was laid bare, as was the lack of discipline among serving officers.

The current crisis has given the government a chance to resolve the issues left over from that crisis - to make peace with 600 of its former soldiers, for example, or to allow tens of thousands of internally displaced refugees to return home.

But it has also created a window of opportunity to make major reforms.

With the threat from former rebels virtually neutralised, and the international forces still on the ground, many analysts believe now is the time to clean out the system.

Security sector reform has been a top priority for the new prime minister, Xanana Gusmao, but there does not seem to be much in the way of concrete plans to do it.

Part of the problem is that the judicial system itself is weak.

And without independent courts to deal with infractions, any reform is bound to fail.

To date, only four soldiers have been convicted for their part in the 2006 violence, and they were only taken into custody this week.

Will it be any different this time around?

It's very difficult to impose... the rule of law upon a bunch of people who have emotional or sentimental attitudes towards each other
Edward Rees, analyst

The government says it will prosecute all those accused of criminal acts during this crisis.

But the acting president, Fernando de Araujo, hinted to the BBC that a presidential pardon for rebel leaders could not be ruled out.

"It's stated in the constitution that the president has the authority to give pardons," he said.

"It's the president's right, and I think our president, Mr Ramos-Horta, has a big heart."

According to analyst Edward Rees, it is this collegiate atmosphere that makes it hard for the country to build strong independent institutions.

As he put it, East Timor still works like a family rather than a nation.

"It's very difficult to impose an abstract conception of the rule of law upon a bunch of people who have emotional or sentimental attitudes towards each other," he explained.

"Imagine what a small village is like in your own country, and imagine the role of the policeman in that village. He or she is not a policeman; they're more of a compromising negotiator."

The shooting of the president on 11 February could have spelt trouble for East Timor.

Instead, the new government has handled the situation skilfully.

But it has been helped this time around by some useful developments, and unless it goes further in tackling the underlying problems of the country's institutions, there is no guarantee it will not face the same kind of situation again.





FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

PRODUCTS & SERVICES

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific