Subject: Washington Post front page: Saved From Ruin: the Reincarnation of East Timor

Washington Post Sunday, May 19, 2002 -front page-

Saved From Ruin: the Reincarnation of East Timor

U.N. Handing Over Sovereignty After Nation-Building Feat

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran Washington Post Foreign Service

DILI, East Timor, May 18 -- When the first wave of U.N. peacekeepers descended on this smoldering seaside city in September 1999, they encountered what one commander called "unimaginable apocalyptic ruin."

Almost every structure -- homes, shops, government buildings, churches -- had been looted, torched or gutted. Most of the population had fled. Indonesian soldiers and their militia proxies, who perpetrated the violence in response to East Timor's overwhelming vote for independence, still roamed the streets, taking potshots at civilians.

Now, as the United Nations prepares to end an unprecedented nation-building mission and hand over sovereignty of this half-island territory to its newly elected government on Monday, East Timor's leaders are saying something that few other beneficiaries of U.N. governance ever have: The international effort to reincarnate their country has been a success.

Though there are skeptics even within U.N. ranks, the territory's leaders point to the accomplishments of the past 32 months. U.N. peacekeepers have largely quashed the threat of a militia insurgency. Scores of businesses and government buildings have been reconstructed. Peaceful, democratic elections were held for a president and national assembly. More than 11,000 people have been hired as civil servants in the new government, which the United Nations has created from scratch.

Foreign advisers are training former pro-independence guerrillas to become soldiers in the country's new defense forces. All but about 50,000 of the 260,000 refugees who fled the violence have returned from Indonesian-controlled western Timor. Acts of retribution against people who voted against independence or participated in militias have been almost nonexistent.

"It has been a tremendous, dramatic accomplishment," said Jose Ramos-Horta, a Nobel peace laureate who is to be the country's foreign minister. "In 1999, East Timor was an epicenter of destruction. Now, with the help of the United Nations and the rest of the world community, we have become a peaceful, stable democracy."

"Those who think the challenge of nation-building is doomed to failure," he said, "should learn from East Timor."

Critics note gaps in the U.N. effort, particularly in reinvigorating East Timor's urban economy and reconstructing rural areas. The court system remains a shambles, leading to fears that vigilante attacks could start after foreign police officers leave.

They also question whether the United Nations took on more than it could handle, whether the $2.2 billion price tag was too high and whether the country will backslide after power is handed over to novice politicians, who already have started bickering among themselves.

Nevertheless, aid workers, diplomats and experts on transition governments regard East Timor as a milestone in the troubled history of U.N. peacekeeping and political intervention, demonstrating that international efforts at nation-building can succeed under the right conditions.

"As far as U.N. missions go, it may be the best," said Jim Della-Giacoma, a representative of the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute. "Things weren't perfect, but they also didn't screw up like they did elsewhere."

East Timor's recovery shows that nation-building "is worth doing and that it can be done," said Sarah Cliffe, the World Bank's mission chief here. A host of dignitaries are scheduled to be in attendance as East Timor becomes the world's newest nation, including former president Bill Clinton, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

East Timor's charismatic president-elect, former resistance leader Xanana Gusmao, acknowledged in an interview this week that "we will have many challenges as a new nation."

"We have to keep reminding ourselves where we started," he said. "We were at ground zero. There was nothing here. It was a vacuum."

Do It Right

As the Red Cross transport plane in which he was flying descended into Dili in October 1999, two almost-simultaneous thoughts popped into Sergio Vieira de Mello's head when he viewed the city for the first time.

"First, it was: This time, you've got to do it right," said de Mello, a Brazilian who had been appointed as Annan's representative in East Timor, a role that gave him near-dictatorial powers. "Then, it was: How do we do this? We've never done anything this big before."

The eastern half of Timor island, known for its pristine beaches and lush forests, had been a sleepy Portuguese colony for more than 400 years. In 1975, after Portugal gave up its claim to the territory, troops from Indonesia invaded, brutally suppressing an independence movement and restricting East Timorese to low-level government jobs.

In 1999, after years of international pressure and armed resistance, Indonesia allowed the United Nations to conduct a referendum in East Timor to determine whether its people wanted to remain part of Indonesia. Almost 80 percent voted to secede, even though Indonesian troops and government-supported militias had engaged in a campaign of terror against independence supporters, killing scores of them before the election.

De Mello said that when he arrived, he had a difficult time grasping the extent of the devastation. Not only was everything burned out, there was no electricity, phone service or clean water. Food supplies were destroyed.

More significant, few among East Timor's 800,000 people would be able to provide those services even if the infrastructure were repaired. Hundreds of Indonesian civil servants, from teachers to firefighters, had fled into western Timor, likely never to return.

For the first time in its history, the United Nations was faced with having to build a whole new government for a country, from setting up a finance ministry to organizing such prosaic duties as trash collection.

Although the United Nations eventually rounded up specialists to handle complex tasks and trained East Timorese to perform those functions, U.N. officials said the mission here has highlighted the world body's limitations in nation-building and even helped dissuade the organization from advocating a large role in Afghanistan's political transition.

"We're not a great rent-a-government," said Jonathan Prentice, de Mello's senior adviser. "In the first few months, we had all these people sent in from New York who could write [diplomatic] cables, but nobody who could lay electrical cable."

Over the past two years, the U.N. mission has created from the ground up a central bank, a customs service and a public television station. More than 700 schools have been renovated, and thousands of teachers have been trained.

East Timorese leaders, U.N. staff and diplomats credit de Mello, with getting the highly bureaucratic organization to adapt to the vagaries of governing a tiny nation. When regulations prohibited him from using U.N. funds to pay for a new door for the territory's main jail, he insisted the rules be changed. When East Timorese leaders demanded a role in governance, he created an interim cabinet with five East Timorese members and four U.N. officials.

De Mello said he came to East Timor mindful of U.N. missteps in other nation-building missions. In Cambodia, the U.N. presence led to a surge in prostitution. And in the Balkans, the organization was criticized for restricting peacekeepers from using deadly force.

In East Timor, de Mello issued a code of conduct to U.N. staff. When he received reports that several hundred pro-Indonesia militiamen had infiltrated the territory in 2000, he revised the rules of engagement to allow peacekeepers to pursue and fire on the insurgents, a decision that forced the militiamen to retreat and dissuaded them from returning.

"We chose not to opt for the usual and classical peacekeeping approach: taking abuse, taking bullets, taking casualties and not responding with enough force, not shooting to kill," de Mello said in an interview. "The U.N. had done that before and we weren't going to repeat it here."


When the three militiamen who burned down Nicolao Ribero dos Santos's house returned to his village near the town of Liquica, he confronted them almost immediately.

But instead of dragging them to the police or threatening to torch their homes, the elementary-school teacher thrust out his open hand. "I forgive you," he recalled saying. "I will not hurt you."

The three men, who had been members of the Red and White Iron militia -- a name derived from the colors of Indonesia's flag -- were astounded.

"I thought he was going to kill me or at least beat me up badly," said Andre Jose dos Santos, a lanky, unemployed 23-year-old who said Indonesian soldiers forced him to join the militia. He and the two others, who are unrelated to the victim, volunteered to help rebuild Ribero dos Santos's two-room wooden house.

"We have to understand that Indonesia divided our people, that it was responsible for this," Ribero dos Santos said. "Now that Indonesia has gone, the East Timorese should unite."

U.N. officials said Ribero dos Santos's tolerance is far from unusual -- and it represents one of the most unique aspects of the transition here. Independence supporters have peacefully welcomed back hundreds of low-level militia members who have apologized for their actions, refraining from the sorts of retribution killings that marred the international peacekeeping operation in Kosovo.

The attitude toward former enemies is just one element that has made the transition here significantly easier than similar efforts in other parts of the world, U.N. officials said. Timor's land area and population are tiny. The people are not riven by ethnic differences. And unlike Cambodia, Angola and Afghanistan, there are no land mines to worry about.

"It's hard to think of another case of nation-building that would be as easy as this one," said Scott Gilmore, a Canadian diplomat who has spent the past nine months working for the U.N. administration here.

The reconstruction effort here also was blessed with early and vigorous international support. The Security Council voted to spend $630 million a year to pay for the U.N. civilian administration and thousands of international peacekeepers and police officers. The World Bank organized a conference of donor nations that elicited more than $500 million in assistance. This week, donors pledged to give an additional $360 million over the next three years.

The U.S. government also runs a $25 million annual aid program, making East Timor among the largest per capita recipients of American development assistance.

U.N. officials said East Timor's dependence on foreign aid could end within five years, when off-shore petroleum deposits are tapped. The deposits could endow the new country, which will be among Asia's poorest, with as much as $3 billion over 17 years, raising living standards and providing economic self-sufficiency, they said.

Even after the United Nations hands over power, it will still play an unparalleled role in the world's newest nation. Not only will 5,000 peacekeepers and 1,300 police officers remain, but so will more than 100 civilian U.N. employees -- who will, for the first time, serve in a national government and report to the country's elected leaders. The United Nations will leave $8 million worth of equipment here, including cars, fax machines and portable office buildings.

"This is still a country in transition," de Mello said. "We can't just leave them to fend for themselves."

He said he was loath to call the United Nations' work here a success. "It's too early to make that judgment. But I think, given what the U.N. is and how it operates, we have been as effective as we could be."

Back to May menu

World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu

Note: For those who would like to fax "the powers that be" - CallCenter is a Native 32-bit Voice Telephony software application integrated with fax and data communications... and it's free of charge! Download from