Subject: The international community can save East Timor, but it must act soon

The Gazette (Montreal)

The international community can save East Timor, but it must act soon

The Timorese have a great will to build their country, but they need help


Published: Sunday, February 17

Speaking to an election-monitoring mission in his presidential office last summer, East Timor president José Ramos Horta waxed passionately about hopes for progress in Asia's newest independent country.

He was confident that the 2007 parliamentary elections would be free of political violence, asking only that observers be present in as many remote areas as possible to show global interest and confidence in the first Timorese-run democratic elections.

Those elections were indeed free, fair and marked by enthusiastic participation. At one polling station soon after the voting began at 7 a.m., a Timorese election monitor asked how Canadians dealt with the problem of long lineups of people trying to get into the voting booths. That was not, I had to admit, a major problem in my country.

Ramos Horta also identified a pressing problem. The security sector - police and the army - needed reform from the ground up, he said. Although a new democracy has put down solid roots since East Timor freed itself from Indonesian military rule, the occupation left a legacy of resorting to political violence.

That legacy flared on Feb. 11 when a former army officer and his followers attacked the homes of Ramos Horta and Prime Minister José Xanana Gusmão. Xanana escaped, but Ramos Horta, who had been seeking dialogue with the dissidents, was shot in the stomach and lies in serious condition in an Australian hospital.

East Timor now makes headlines only during these sporadic outbursts of violence. It's tempting to write off the tiny country as the latest "failed state" or, in a play on the prime minister's name, as a "Xanana republic."

That would be a mistake. East Timor will "fail" only if the international community fails it.

This is a country that, rarely for much of its region, has seen a peaceful transfer of power from the party that led East Timor into independence, to an opposition coalition. The ousted government accepted its defeat and now forms a vocal opposition in a minority parliament with four main political groupings - a familiar enough situation to Canadians.

In 1999, Timorese voted for independence in a United Nations referendum. Indonesian army officers responded with a wave of violence that displaced 300,000 people and destroyed 85 per cent of East Timor's infrastructure. There was no easy path ahead.

The UN stepped in with an interim administration with more authority than any other UN government before or since. The success or failure of the new state, then, would reflect on the world body as much as it would on the Timorese leadership.

Yet the UN mission was slashed prematurely and has survived in diminished form on periodic short extensions. The current UN mission's mandate expires at the end of February. It performed well in some areas, but suffered in its early days from what one UN military officer calls a "neo-colonial" attitude of making decisions without enough local input. Non-governmental groups pointed to vast sums spent on bottled water for foreign consultants, when East Timor lacks safe drinking water for its own people, as a sign of misplaced priorities.

Canada, once prominent among foreign donors, promised in 1999 to remain for the long term. Raymond Chan, then secretary of state for the Asia Pacific, said Canada was "quite willing to pay our fair share, to contribute our fair share in the post-referendum, post-consultation era, to help rebuild East Timor." Although some useful support remains, Canada has now phased out its bilateral aid program for East Timor.

Under a brutal Indonesian military occupation that lasted from 1975 until 1999, Western governments generally aligned themselves with the Indonesian dictatorship led by the recently deceased president Suharto. For a brief moment, they recognized a shared responsibility to assist in rebuilding East Timor over the long term. The attention span of Western governments has since shifted elsewhere.

This month's events in East Timor are in part a result of that short attention span. The South African government has called for a sustained UN commitment running until 2012, to permit long-term planning. That's a call that deserves support.

As Liberal MP Mario Silva told Parliament this week, "East Timor's people and government need support from the world community. There is much that we can do to help." Canada could do a great deal without a large commitment, for instance, in the security and justice sector. East Timor has a vibrant civil society, but needs help in capacity-building.

On a recent visit to Canada, East Timor's senior diplomat in Washington said: "We want, one day, for everyone - us and the international community - to look at East Timor and say, yes, we succeeded." There's an impressive will among Timorese to build their country. How much success they have depends, as it did during the Indonesian occupation, partly on the attitude of the international community.

David Webster is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto. He monitored the 2007 parliamentary elections in East Timor as part of a joint Timorese-international observer mission.

Back to February  menu

December 2007
World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu