By Vincent Souriau -
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 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 on 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 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.