With UN peacekeepers set to leave East Timor at the end of the year, local police are striving to shed a reputation for rough justice as the nation learns to fend for itself 10 years on from independence.
Every day at 8:00 am, Carlos Almedia Jeronimo Sousa inspects a class of recruits at the East Timorese police academy, the first to go into training without the support of UN forces.
In less than a year the 250 recruits, chosen from more than 9,000 applicants, will join the 3,100-strong police force, which celebrated its 12th birthday in March last year, just as it took over policing duties from the UN.
“We are ready,” declared Almeida, who heads the academy, after inspecting cadets who line up for him in complete silence every morning in crisp uniforms with hands clasped at the back.
He pointed to the peaceful conduct of East Timor’s presidential election last month. The run-off winner, former army chief Taur Matan Ruak, said Sunday that the former Portuguese colony was becoming “a state under the rule of law”.
Ruak was speaking as East Timor celebrated 10 years of formal independence, following a period of UN administration after its bloody separation from Indonesian occupation in 1999, when UN peacekeepers first arrived.
The current UN deployment — the United Nations Integrated Mission in East Timor — came in 2006, after a political crisis in which dozens were killed and tens of thousands displaced, with a mandate to restore security.
The only major major violence since then was a 2008 failed assassination attempt on Jose Ramos-Horta, the Nobel laureate president who on Saturday handed power to Ruak.
The next big test is on July 7, when East Timorese elect a new prime minister and government in general elections.
Ameerah Haq, the top UN representative in the capital Dili, has said that if the elections go well, the remaining 1,280 UN peacekeepers will be able to pull out as planned at the end of this year.
Despite bountiful oil and natural gas off its coasts, East Timor remains hobbled by extreme poverty and corruption. The challenge for the fledgling police force is to administer justice impartially, and professionally.
On the lawn of the police academy’s training ground, the cadets are divided into small groups to simulate the arrest of a violent suspect.
The practical training of these youngsters — they are aged from 18 to 22 — began two weeks ago and will last for the next six months. Their gestures are still hesitant as they rehearse disarming and arresting the suspect.
“It’s good that they train like this. Usually here the police do anything they want,” said Sejanto da Silva, a 27-year-old social worker.
“Lawful or not, they don’t care. They catch you and they hit you for no reason. They are not yet developed,” he said, sitting in a cafe in Dili.
While UN peacekeepers still carry out patrols, security enforcement has been entirely in the hands of local police for more than a year.
Damien Kingsbury, an expert on East Timor at Australia’s Deakin University, said there was “still a relatively high level of police impunity”, particularly in the rural areas outside Dili.
“But the police, while a bit rough, are generally not sadistic and not heavily involved in organised crime,” he said.
“The law and order situation in Timor-Leste (East Timor) is pretty good, although some people are still learning that they need to take their disputes through more formal channels.”
Haq, the UN secretary general’s special representative for East Timor, said that the police force had come a long way, but still needed time to improve.
“I think PNTL has developed a lot of its capacity since we started this mission (in 2006),” Haq told AFP, using the Portuguese acronym for the National Police of Timor-Leste.
“Does that mean that PNTL is an absolutely top-notch police force if you compare it to countries that have existed for 100 or 200 years? Absolutely not. An institution is not built in 10 years,” she added.
About 20 burly officers from the National Republican Guard of Portugal are helping with the training.
“The goal is to improve skills, to have a police force better and stronger in all areas,” said Captain Luis Candeias, a Portuguese officer who teaches ethics in law enforcement.
“It is not only about technical and professional training,” he said.
“One must also work on their mentality, so that they manage to win the confidence of the Timorese people.”