EARLY WARNING (EAST TIMOR): New State in a ‘State of Emergency’ 


Urgent Appeal Case: UA-63-2002

EARLY WARNING (EAST TIMOR): A demonstration by students, which was mishandled by the UN-led police, pushed the country towards a state of emergency.


The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has learned from sources in Dili that the incident that triggered the riots on Dec. 4, 2002, occurred when the police tried to arrest a student at East Timor University who was accused of destroying a police motorcycle. A scuffle broke out, and one or two students were shot by the police (the number of casualties is very uncertain with some reports stating that five people were shot dead). A crowd of angry students stormed Parliament and smashed windows and furniture.

According to the main hospital on the morning of Dec. 5, they treated 25 injured people – 16 with gunshot wounds of which one died (an 18-year-old male student, Manuel Da Silva). The hospital sources, however, could not confirm the number of dead at the university as apparently the students took away the body of at least one student. During the course of the riot, a forgotten and ignored Muslim minority who are living in a mosque in the Farol area of Dili also came under attack, but the attempt to burn down the mosque resulted in a neighboring house being set on fire.

The incidents led the government to declare a state of emergency and to call in the military (UN troops and East Timor Defence Force) to take control of the situation. Demonstrations planned for Dec. 5 though were cancelled. There were reports on the street on Dec. 5 that the students would parade the body towards the cemetery. This procession though was cancelled due to threats from the government. It implies that the newly established State has acknowledged that UN police are not capable of controlling the situation.

Meanwhile, UN headquarters in New York reported on the incident, stating that “United Nations peacekeepers and police were called in to restore order in Dili, Timor-Leste, today [Dec. 4] following a violent demonstration involving more than 600 people that left one student dead and a Timorese parliamentarian slightly injured.”

East Timor, after generations of suffering, gained its independence in May this year. The country emerged traumatized and brutalized with its economy in ruins after a UN-sponsored referendum by the United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor as the world’s first independent nation of the new millennium. The independence that had been the dream of so many for so long brought no magical transformation of people’s lives, however. A national non-governmental organization (NGO), Ya Yasan Hak, suggests that the crisis on Dec. 4 and in the recent past in other districts is due to people having high expectations after independence that have not been fulfilled by reality. The country is still desperately poor, and unemployment is extremely high, especially among young people. Partly, however, they blame the failings of the United Nations for having conducted their mission without involving, consulting or training the local population to adequately assume control of the nation. They also feel that the United Nations did not do enough to meet their expectations for justice for the victims of the Indonesian occupation, including the violence before and after the 1999 referendum. Lastly, they believe that the United Nations failed to create a space in which ordinary people could express their grievances and disappointments. In short, it is a perception among the masses that the previous UN missions, the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) and the United Nations Mission in Assistance of East Timor (UNMISET), have failed to deliver.

The tragic outburst of Dec. 4 should be taken as a wake-up call to both the government and the international community. It has been reported that the students accused the government of corruption and of government officials, especially Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, of living an extravagant life at the expense of the poor. The frustration and anger in the country’s youth, supported by about 1,500 former Falantil soldiers, is so great that even the most respected person in East Timor, President Xanana Gusmao, was reportedly ignored by the demonstrators when he asked them to disburse.

Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta said that the riot should send a strong message to the international community on “the need for lasting aid in order to consolidate peace and stability.” While the international community should not abandon East Timor now that it has achieved independence, it appears from the protests against corruption that aid, while needed to rebuild the country and offer people seeds for a better future, is also part of the young nation’s problems; for based on the complaints of the demonstrators, it is apparently the misappropriation of aid that was a major factor in inflaming the passions of the people.

Meanwhile, UN Security Council Resolution 1410 (2002) gives UNMISET a mandate: To provide interim law enforcement and public security and to assist in the development of a new law enforcement agency in East Timor, the East Timor Police Service (ETPS).

In reality, the police are still led and controlled operationally by the United Nations Mission in Support of East Timor. The issues relating to law and order are the direct responsibility of the UN special representative of the secretary-general and UN police commissioner in East Timor, not of the government of Timor Leste. The riots on Dec. 4 highlight the failure of the UN police to respond to major disruptions of law and order and an inability of the police operational command to prepare a strategy to deal with such a massive outbreak of public violence. At the same time, it is evident that they have failed to adequately train police officers in riot-control measures. During the past year, there have been many cases where the police have used highhandedness to deal with violent situations. The UN police, who are responsible for maintaining law and order, tend to assume that they have reached the stage where they are no longer responsible for law and order and instead use local police officers, who are primarily still undergoing training, to face complex situations, like those of Dec. 4.

AHRC stresses that UNMISET should take responsibility for its inability to control the violent situation that erupted on Dec. 4. At the same time, the events of Dec. 4 highlight a procedural discrepancy in the police’s use of force that has no judicial or civilian oversight. It is suggested that the East Timor government involves the judiciary and other institutions in investigating these violent incidents and demand a thorough public investigation to determine operational responsibility. AHRC also stresses that appropriate compensation be given to the victims of the incident and their families.

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Document Type : Urgent Appeal Case
Document ID : UA-63-2002
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