Last week, Dili polished itself up and played host to visiting government officials from more than 20 countries, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison from Australia, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Timor-Leste’s vote for independence on 30 August 1999. As the excitement and gravitas of the nationwide festivities tapers off, and the dry season dust resettles on Dili, it is a good time to reflect on Timor-Leste’s many achievements over that period, and the obstacles that lie ahead.

Timor-Leste in 2019 is peaceful and stable, and it is hard to refute the fact that since enduring 24 years of Indonesian occupation and the devastation of 1999, the country has come a long way in a short time. This is all the more remarkable in light of the many obstacles it has faced – and will continue to face – in maintaining that peace. Asia’s newest nation-state has one of the youngest and least employed populations in the region, low-level violence among youth is commonplace, and the women of Timor-Leste experience some of the highest rates of domestic violence in Asia.

Although most people feel that overall security has improved, it is still common for people to be involved in disputes, with nearly half of respondents indicating that they have an ongoing dispute with someone in their community.

Communal disharmony is often exacerbated by complex, overlapping, and poorly understood dispute-resolution processes involving a multitude of actors. This is particularly acute in relation to the intransigent problems of land titling and administration – which a recently enacted, controversial package of land laws has apparently failed to address. Meanwhile, the government institutions charged with addressing these challenges – among many others – are nascent, poorly resourced and inevitably coloured by the deep legacies of over 500 years of Portuguese colonialism and invasion and occupation by Indonesia.

Coming just a few days after the last of the dignitaries departed Dili, the launch of The Asia Foundation’s (TAF) Community-Police Perceptions Survey (CPP Survey) on 3 September helps to shed more light on the dark corners of these complex security challenges. The CPP Survey represents the fifth survey of its kind in Timor-Leste, with TAF conducting its first nationwide survey on security perceptions in Timor-Leste in 2008. The Surveys were repeated in 2009, 2013, 2015, and 2018.

Between 72 and 88 questions were asked of 3178 respondents through random sampling across all 13 of the country’s districts in September and October 2018. Respondents were categorised into police (Policia Nacional Timor Leste – PNTL), public, and community-leader groups, with three distinct but very similar questionnaires for each. Most questions were also asked in preceding surveys, to enable comparison over time.

Although the surveys have been partly inspired by and managed through TAF’s long-standing support for community policing in Timor-Leste – currently funded by the New Zealand government through the Community Policing Support Program – their findings have important implications for all sectors of society.

Security in Timor-Leste has remained stable in recent years

Nearly all people in Timor-Leste – 95% – believe that the security situation in the last year has either improved or stayed the same. Between 2008 and 2009, there was a dramatic increase in the public reporting security improvements, which has since stabilised.

In 2018, the top three security problems identified by the public, community leaders, and the PNTL were land issues, youth problems, and domestic violence. These were also the top security concerns in 2015.

But communal disputes are commonplace, and land disputes in particular are increasing

Although most people feel that overall security has improved, it is still common for people to be involved in disputes, with nearly half of respondents indicating that they have an ongoing dispute with someone in their community. Most disputes are land-related and these have increased significantly since 2015.

The perception of stability is also reflected in high levels of communal trust, confidence in and appreciation for the work of PNTL

In 2018 when asked whether they trust the police, 99% of both the general public and community leaders said yes. This is the same as 2015. There were numerous other questions targeting public perceptions of PNTL performance which elicited overwhelmingly positive perceptions about PNTL and their role in the community.  

Despite these findings, and the government’s increasing emphasis on the need for greater service towards the community, PNTL’s effectiveness is still undermined by its militaristic orientation. It was thrown into stark relief on 17 November 2018, when three teenagers were shot and killed and another five wounded by an armed, off-duty PNTL officer (or officers), following an altercation at a party in the Dili neighbourhood of Kuluhun.

PNTL officers and community leaders are the most common first-responders to communal security problems and disputes

In 2018, the overwhelming majority of all respondents say that PNTL and citizens are working together to address security problems in their community.

When the public were asked whether, hypothetically, they would first report a crime to a community leader or a PNTL officer, nearly three quarters (72%) said they would report to a community leader, while only around a quarter (27%) said they would report to PNTL.

At the same time, responses indicate that people who did actually experience a crime in the preceding year are equally likely to request assistance first from PNTL (42%) as they are from someone within the community (43%).  

PNTL and community leaders collaborate closely to resolve communal disputes

In 2018 the majority of the public (65%), community leaders (70%) and PNTL (83%) say that PNTL are playing a role in the resolution of disputes by local community leaders.

Well over half (64%) of cases reported initially to the PNTL are resolved through mediation involving both PNTL and community leaders. There has been a significant increase in the number of people saying that PNTL are involved in active mediation, from 36% in 2015 to 58% in 2018.

It is very rare, however, for cases to be referred on for prosecution and investigation, much less go to trial.

Overall these findings are barely the tip of a deep iceberg of nuanced, interesting findings about how the people of Timor-Leste feel about security in 2018, and will raise as many questions as answers. To further explore those questions and answers, the CPP Survey data can be accessed via TAF’s Data Portal.

Of course, what the CPP Survey does not do is explain why respondents feel the way they do about these issues, and what the Government of Timor-Leste might do to address them. TAF will be working with its CPSP partners, PNTL and New Zealand Police, in the coming months to further consider and clarify the policy implications of the findings, as a foundation for targeted policy.