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After the buffaloes clash: moving from political violence to personal security in Timor-Leste

Research report

Written by Craig Valters

Research report

​Timor-Leste is often held up as a post-conflict success story. However, this was also the case before the political-military crisis and elections-related violence in 2006-2007 brought this story crashing back down to reality. This paper examines the progress made in personal security since that time. It finds there have been notable reductions in various forms of violence in Timor-Leste, particularly political violence. The reasons for this include a mix of peacekeeping interventions which eventually transitioned into nationally owned decision-making, a relatively stable political settlement, the government’s attempts to ‘buy the peace’ with oil and gas reserves, effective state responses to threats to stability, ongoing development of a national police force and a range of responses by local actors to insecurity.

However, a number of tensions and trends threaten to undermine the gains made to date. Various forms of violence persist: notably sexual and gender-based violence, and violence linked to the security sector, land, urban growth and youth groups. Crucially, many of the factors that have brought stability to Timor-Leste may not be sowing the seeds of sustainable peace. For example, questions remain over how Timor-Leste can transition away from the highly enigmatic but centralised political domination of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão, whether it can move away from a ‘buying the peace’ approach, and how problems in the security sector can be resolved. Finally, while security has undoubtedly improved, this may be negated by socioeconomic inequalities and questions around how the gains made to date may be sustained. Timor-Leste’s experience, then, is a chequered story of security progress. While much has been achieved, there is still a long way to go.

There is a Tetun translation available of the summary of the Timor-Leste report.

Craig Valters, Sarah Dewhurst and Juana de Catheu