31 August 2011

Extract on land conflicts from The Asia Times 30 August 2011

Resentment over slow development amid apparent graft could be exacerbated by a looming crisis over land rights and ownership. While Fretilin has yet to state its position on the country’s proposed land law, the issue could be an election game-breaker should anyone run with a populist program.

After 24 years of brutal Indonesian occupation followed by post-independence upheavals, Portuguese-era and Indonesian-era land claims about who is entitled to stay where and why means there is more heat than light in Timor-Leste’s land debate.

Some claims of ownership date to Indonesian times – an apparent contradiction given that Jakarta’s occupation was deemed illegal under international law, while the Timor-Leste state is likely to claim much of the land that is not covered by the few Portuguese or Indonesian-era papers.

The code could – if applied to the letter – entitle the state to evict tens of thousands of Timorese in Dili, and more elsewhere. Many Timorese settled on available land after 1999′s independence referendum, which sparked chaos as Indonesia’s army and affiliated Timorese militias wreaked havoc as they withdrew.

While it is unclear if there is any direct link with a nearby Indonesian commercial project slated for the area, the details of which have not been made public, gang-related violence in Zumalai in the south of the country saw 100 houses torched.

According to one Timorese media personality who asked to remain anonymous, the PNTL – Timor-Leste’s national police force – asked for assistance from the army to deal with the fallout from the attacks. While this might signal better relations after rivalries between the police and army played a part in the 2006 near-cataclysm, it raises questions about the strength and reliability of the police.

While the UN maintains a contingent of 1,280 foreign police in Timor-Leste, full control of policing was handed to the Timorese in a step-by-step process starting in 2009. In Zumalai, the arson is said to have been triggered by the stabbing of a gang member who was also a police officer. Many of the country’s police are thought to be members of Timor-Leste’s martial arts groups and street gangs, some of which also have links to political figures.

The land law has yet to be settled in parliament, but nonetheless the Timorese authorities are already pushing ahead with clearances to make way for projects, not only in rural areas but in the heart of the capital.

At a derelict backstreet building once occupied by some of the “petitioners” – the army cadres whose dismissal in 2006 helped trigger the street fighting that year – Asia Times Online spoke with Eufrajio Fernandes, part of a group of 175 families who were driven from their homes in Bairo Pite in Dili on January 20, to make way for a police housing project.

“They came at 4am, they did not give us any warning,” he recalls. “They just came in the dark of night and kicked us out.” The group was given $2,000 per household as compensation, money which came from the police rather than the Ministry for Land and Property.

“We cannot do much with this amount,” he says, adding that he purchased land for $1,700 on the rock-strewn slopes of the mountains surrounding Dili. Whether he will be entitled to keep the plot is open to question, given the country’s legal limbo over land, but he has already spent the remaining $300 on living costs since January.

His friend Alberto Soares Gama puts the group’s anger in context. “In Zumalai there was burning and fighting, so the government acts to intervene. Here, we have been peaceful, but they ignore us,” he says, referring to letters addressed to various government ministries. “They just fobbed us off with excuses.”

Extracted from Potent mix for Timor-Leste – Asia Times August 30th, 2011 http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/MH31Ae01.html  accessed 31/08/2011

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