BANGKOK, 12 April 2011 (IRIN) - Timor-Leste is on course to take on full security responsibilities after national forces officially assumed policing at end-March, according to the UN.
The situation is now stable, Gyorgy Kakuk, a spokesman for the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT), told IRIN. Presidential elections are expected to be held in May 2012, following which the UN is scheduled to depart.
"The UN and the government are working closely together to plan UNMIT's withdrawal from Timor-Leste at the end of 2012," Kakuk said.
The process is being led by a high-level committee, including President Jose Ramos-Horta, Prime Minister Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General, Ameerah Haq.
More than 1,400 uniformed personnel in the UN police have been working in Timor-Leste since the government requested help during the 2006 political crisis, when civil conflict broke out in the former Indonesian colony, displacing 155,000 people and destroying 3,000 homes, according to the UN.
Crime rates have fallen by 20 percent in the past year, Kakuk said. At present, 80 percent of all crimes against people are domestic violence-related, and the most pervasive petty crimes are those of opportunity, such as pick-pocketing and theft, which are attributed to high poverty levels, the Overseas Security Advisory Council of the US stated in a 2011 report.
Where the money is
But while UNMIT remains confident in its gradual phase-out, others worry about the possible economic implications.
In a 2010 country report, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said after the departure of UN forces when Timor-Leste became a sovereign nation in 2002, there was "a sharp contraction in the local economy".
The UN pumps roughly US$20 million in annual salaries into Timor, according to a 2010 International Crisis Group (ICG) report.
In addition, UN staff spending contributes to approximately 10 percent of the economy, reports the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in the 2011 Asian Development Outlook.
While the ADB says the phase-out will potentially exacerbate the poverty of the estimated 41 percent of Timorese who live on less than $1 per day, other sources say the half-island nation is well supported by oil money and the UN presence has had an inflationary impact on local wages and distorted local salaries. "Our petroleum wealth provides more than we need. The UN, if anything, has had a negative distorting influence on our economy and society. Its highly paid international staff pushes up the prices of everything from accommodation to everyday consumables," Jose Texeira, a member of parliament with the main opposition party Fretilin, told IRIN.
At the end of 2010, Timor-Leste's Petroleum Fund, set up in 2005, had $6.9 billion in offshore investments, a figure that is expected to exceed $14 billion by 2015, with an annual income of more than $2 billion, the ADB reported.
However, Jim Della-Giacoma, ICG's Southeast Asia project director, says the country's economy should not factor into the UN's withdrawal.
"The handover is long overdue, it should have happened a year ago. It is a positive step now putting the responsibility and ownership on Timorese to maintain their own security," Della-Giacoma said.
Confidence has grown in electoral bodies locally and internationally because of the lack of political violence since 2006, despite strong opposing groups in parliament.
"By the time 2012 comes around, we would have had two full parliamentary terms run from election to election, without a coup or irretrievable breakdown in democratic or constitutional rule," Teixeira said.
Timor's politics remains relatively peaceful, despite differences between the leading Alliance of the Parliamentary Majority, a four-party coalition, and opposing parties.
"They continue to channel these differences through established democratic institutions and processes," said Haq in a briefing to the UN Security Council on 22 February.
No social or political instability associated with the upcoming elections is expected, but more UN volunteers will be brought in "to support the electoral management bodies", Kakuk said.
"We believe that the institutional problems and political tensions that existed to create the 2006 crisis no longer exist," said Teixeira.