ISSN 2330-717X

Unfinished Struggle For Timor-Leste’s Veterans

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Ten years after the demobilisation of its guerrilla liberation army, Timor-Leste, or East Timor, must strike a balance between recognising veterans’ role and promoting strong and independent institutions in order to ensure stability, according to on group.

Timor-Leste’s Veterans: An Unfinished Struggle?, the latest briefing from the International Crisis Group, examines attempts by the young state to recognise and honour those who fought for its independence. While these efforts initially targeted on symbolic measures, the state’s increasing wealth means that they have increasingly focused on cash benefits. The government has deferred difficult decisions on who will qualify for these payments. It has done so because of the complexity of Timor-Leste’s 24-year resistance and fears that refusing benefits to claimants could create potential spoilers to the stability the country now enjoys.

East TImor
East TImor

“The question of who will qualify for veteran status remains both difficult and politically charged”, says Cillian Nolan, Crisis Group South East Asia Analyst. “While the promise of money eased discontent among dissident former fighters, it has also brought a flood of apparently false claims of service. A definitive list of veterans is an unreachable goal. Once the long-deferred decisions on who will qualify are made, they risk creating real discontent”.

Beyond cash benefits, there are two areas where the government will have to manage the demands of some veterans for greater influence. The first is plans for an advisory council that will manage decisions on veterans’ affairs. It could be a useful forum for regulating these matters in general, and overseeing a carefully bounded set of benefits, including designing eligibility criteria for financial compensation. Some former fighters hope it will play a broader role in setting government policy and bring back the influence they enjoyed during the occupation; these expectations will need to be managed.

Second, the government will also have to decide on how to deal with pressure to give former fighters a formal security role as well as how to make clear the distinction between the state armed forces and their resistance-era predecessors. While it may make sense to give the former guerrilla army a ceremonial role to acknowledge the importance of its legacy, any decisions on a reserve force that could lead to rearming the former guerrillas in times of crisis may lead to the creation of a militia it may not be able to control.

Timorese politics and its security sector institutions remain held together by a small set of personalities rather than bound by legal rules. If veterans’ demands for recognition are successfully managed it will smooth the way for a succession of power to a younger generation of political leaders to determine the country’s future.

“The state continues to face a difficult challenge in balancing veterans’ demands for recognition with efforts to promote strong and independent institutions”, says Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group’s South East Asia Project Director. “Only with the right balance will a shift in power be possible from the “Generation of ’75” that brought the country to independence and still holds onto power”.

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