10 July 2003
-- Manatuto, East
Today was a great opportunity to hear the community's concerns
regarding the police, crime, safety, and peace in the district.
Starting at about nine in the morning (the start was scheduled
for eight, and police were still fiddling with the sound system
until well after the meeting started), the community met with
the police in well-organized affair. The police spent the better
part of the morning presenting to a gathering of community members
-- both leaders and regular citizens -- information about their
activities and actions in pursuit of justice, peace, and safety.
The people had an opportunity to direct questions at specific
members of the police force. A lively exchange took place most
of the time, with the people seldom simply accepting political
answers. The national police commissioner was in attendance, and
for a short hour, his Australian advisor was as well. There were
more than a few instances when his presence helped satisfy the
The entire process started, of course, with lengthy introductions,
formal addresses, and various rounds of giving recognition and
thanks. I would have loved to have sat next to an interpreter,
as the exchanges were often quick and complicated. Unfortunately,
we've spent too little of the last three months learning Tetun,
and too much of it in pointless training sessions discussing theories
of evacuation plans or listening to discussions about dating in
A gentleman sitting just behind me opened up the citizen question
period with a quick statement that he was scarred to give his
name for fear of recriminations from the police. He justified
this by saying that in past times, if someone spoke against the
authorities, and gave his name and place of residence, he was
sure to receive an unfriendly visit soon. At this point, the police
officer acting as moderator spoke a bit about this being a meeting
of Timorese with Timorese, that everyone was from the same community
and that no one should be afraid of such recriminations. Whether
that made a difference, or the initial statement had simply been
made rhetorically, the man gave his name and the meeting progressed.
Indeed, it did not seem to me that anyone was afraid to speak
out, and even to correct the police when they failed to answer
the initial question: more than once, the police responding to
the question was interrupted by the initial poser of the question
or another person, and put on the right track.
At one point, fairly early in the morning, a heated verbal exchange
nearly turned violent. All I could infer at the time, was that
two parties were upset with each other over something, and they
were all set to go after each other in the presence of all the
community leaders and about fifty police officers! <a href="7-11.htm">(Tomorrow,
I was to learn more details from the American advisor to the police
who had the benefit of an interpreter at that point.)</a>
The two antagonists lunged at each other from opposite sides of
the isle. The women, Senora Lina, of my host family, and her friend,
quickly jumped clear and headed toward the front of the room where
the police commissioner and the more important guests were encircled
by a protective half-circle of police officers. Security guards
in green rushed to the scene. Various community members alternately
joined in the verbal assault or worked to keep the sides apart.
To me, the atmosphere seemed to have deteriorated to such an extent
that nothing positive could happen.
It was at that point, upon looking through the chaos, seeing two
young men within inches of striking each other, that I saw an
old gentleman leaning back in his chair against the wall, not
three feet from the two trying to rain blows on each other, lighting
up a cigarette. Perhaps nothing terrible would happen. Perhaps
it was a fight with no more import than a barroom brawl.
In the end, the sides were separated, the young men sat down in
their seats, and the leaders began their requisite reproaching
speeches and extolled the virtues of collaboration and cooperation.
Senora Leonia, the district administration spoke first, grabbing
the microphone -- now hooked up to a little-battery powered speaker
-- and quickly raising consensus that the meeting should go on,
that people would not allow the meeting to degenerate. Of course
the commissioner spoke, and others too. Eventually, the community
could once again put their questions to the police representatives.
Now, I could not understand much of the dialogue, but I did pick
up on a number of themes. It seemed many people were still very
unsatisfied with the lack of results after giving reports to police
and investigators about crimes committed in the post-referendum
period of violence. They seemed to be saying that they know who
the worst perpetrators are, and that when they find them in the
community or elsewhere in the country, they are naturally frustrated
that no one arrests them.
From my introduction to the Serious Crimes Unit -- one of the
more interesting of the training sessions coordinated by the Peace
Corps -- I know the serious logistical and institutional problems
that agency is having trying to secure justice for the people
of East Timor. I can sympathize with the community's concerns.
A similar frustration seemed present about ordinary crimes committed
recently. The community, knowing who committed the crime, is upset
that sometimes the police are slow to act, or are for some reason
unable to arrest the perpetrators. From what I could discern,
I imagine the people are naturally disappointed in the slowness,
clumsiness, and occasional unfairness of a criminal justice system
based on institutions invented in the West and poorly enacted
in a country with little financial or human resources to spare.
I imagine this disappointment would only be heightened if they
were used to being able to follow traditional practices of justice,
generally quick and effective at smoothing out community relations
if not necessarily fair in our eyes. Certainly they are happier
with the police now than they were under the Indonesian police
who were seldom more than oppressors, but it is my general impression
that communities were left alone to resolve most of their internal
differences however they best saw fit. Perhaps this impression
is too strong, and true more of small towns and villages than
of cities like Manatuto. Either way, the people clearly expect
that <I>their</I> police force should be more effective.
A more mundane, though probably just as impactful issue, was regarding
traffic. One concern about clogged isles on busses seems doomed
to fall on eternally deaf ears, but another about the police speeding
through town may well have results.
At the end of the meeting, I could not wait to get out and listen
to some basic Tetun at my house, anything I could easily understand.
I met Theresa, and was happy to have her company down to the beach
where I swam and splashed in the small surf, washing away the
fatuk moras (rock sick, or head ache) of struggling to comprehend