Police -- Community Meeting

In Manatuto, East Timor


10 July 2003 -- Manatuto, East Timor

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 crowd.

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 East Timor.

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 the unintelligible.

mj


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