Timor-Leste's veterans: an unfinished struggle?

22 Nov 2011

More than ten years after the formation of Timor-Leste's army and the demobilisation of the guerrilla force that fought for independence, the struggle continues about how to pay tribute to the veterans.

The increasingly wealthy state has bought off the threat once posed by most dissidents with an expensive cash benefits scheme and succeeded in engaging most veterans’ voices in mainstream politics. This approach has created a heavy financial burden and a complicated process of determining who is eligible that will create new tensions even as it resolves others. A greater challenge lies in containing pressures to give them disproportionate political influence and a formal security role. A careful balance will need to be struck between paying homage to heroes while allowing a younger generation of leaders to grow up to replace them. Failure could block the generational transfer of power necessary for the state’s long-term stability.

The question of who and how many qualify for veteran status remains both difficult and politically charged. The contributions of hundreds of fighters of the Forças Armadas de Libertação Nacional de Timor-Leste (Falintil), who comprised the armed front during the 24-year resistance to Indonesian occupation, are the most straightforward. A well-known and far smaller diplomatic front walked the corridors of the UN in New York and in capitals to ensure the outside world never forgot their struggle. As the resis­tance matured, a clandestine front emerged as an integral part of the struggle for independence, smuggling in supplies to the guerrillas, capturing media attention and frustrating Indonesian intelligence efforts. While this latter group was the most numerous, the contributions of many of these men and women remained unknown even to one another, as they worked in the shadows.

Since independence, complex arrays of commissions and laws have been formed to register and pay homage to this mostly undocumented movement. These efforts have increasingly focused on compensation with $72 million (6 per cent of the state budget) set aside for veterans’ benefits in 2011. While the promise of money has eased discontent among dissident former Falintil fighters, it has also brought a flood of apparently false claims of service, making any definitive list of veterans an unreachable goal. A decision to “reactivate resistance structures” to boost legitimacy has not solved the problem. Judgment on difficult cases has been deferred based on a belief that fraudulent claims will be revealed through denunciation once the lists are published. Even with the option to appeal, new discontent is being created that will require mediation.

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