Timor-Leste: A Hopeful Look to the Future

June 1, 2012
Peacekeepers Before Departure for Timor

After a trip to Beijing to support U.S.-Chinese talks on UN peacekeeping, I recently made my way via Guangzhou, China and Perth and Darwin, Australia to Dili, Timor-Leste. I went to Timor-Leste to see if this tiny country -- roughly the size of Connecticut with a population of approximately one million -- is on track to say goodbye to its UN peacekeeping mission at the end of this year.

I was the first person from the Department of State's Bureau of International Organization Affairs to visit Timor-Leste in over a decade. That is largely because it is so far from Washington, D.C. -- about 10,000 miles (16,000 km). As I flew in, I could see below me a tropical country with lush, wooded hills covered in low clouds and the small capital of Dili nestled between the hills and a sparkling sea. As I arrived to the airport, I saw my first UN peacekeepers at work -- a Turkish and a Malaysian policeman (part of an 8-man contingent from as many countries I learned later). They were advising Timorese immigration officials, but the Timorese were clearly in charge.

Timor-Leste was the first new nation of the millennium. It celebrated the 10th anniversary of its independence on May 20, 2012, by swearing in a new president, who had been brought to office through free, fair, and peaceful elections. Nonetheless, this beautiful, small island country has had a hard time getting in the limelight alongside other recent conflicts. Perhaps the lack of attention is a good sign that Timor-Leste is on its way to becoming a thriving, prosperous democracy.

A bit of history: In 1974, after a revolution overthrew the dictatorship in Lisbon, the Portuguese decided to withdraw from their colonies in Africa and Asia, including Timor-Leste. In late November 1975, after a brief but bloody civil war, the Timorese declared an even briefer independence. Within days, the Indonesians invaded, and then occupied Timor-Leste until 1999. In 1999, a year after turmoil surrounding the Asian financial crisis forced Indonesian President Soeharto out of office, his successor authorized a popular consultation in which the Timorese could choose between greater autonomy or independence.

A special UN mission established in June 1999 organized the vote. Almost 80 percent of those who voted in the referendum at the end of August favored independence. Pro-Indonesian militias responded with severe violence; in mid-September the international community compelled Indonesia to accept UN peacekeepers. The UN force restored peace and established a UN transitional administration, which was in place until Timor-Leste joined the community of nations in 2002. In August 2006, the UN Security Council authorized the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste, UNMIT for short, to help quell mass rioting and violence after an internal political crisis that displaced 150,000 Timorese. The mission represents the UN's most recent intervention in Timor-Leste.

In February of this year, the United States joined the other 14 members of the UN Security Council in approving the extension of UNMIT's mandate until December 31. In the resolution, the Council took note, among other things, of the improvements in the country's political and security situation and stressed the importance of the spring presidential and summer legislative elections. After the formation of a new government, the stage will be set for the conclusion of UNMIT's mission.

I spent four days in Timor-Leste speaking to a wide range of people, including Deputy Prime Minister Guterres, Special Representative of the Secretary-General Haq, head of UNMIT, the PNTL Deputy Commander, the Australian Ambassador, a district administrator, a veterans' leader, non-governmental organization (NGO) representatives, and various blue-bereted UN Police, including UNPOL Commissioner Carrilho. The overwhelming consensus was that Timor-Leste Timor was ready to sail on its own without international peacekeepers.

If UNMIT withdraws at the end of the year, it will be because the UN has succeeded in bringing stability in close cooperation with the Timorese themselves, and with the important help of other international partners such as the Australian-led International Stabilization Force (which will likely withdraw at the same time), the United States, Indonesia, Portugal, and the European Union.

The spirit of those I met seemed hopeful, optimistic. Roads were being built, power lines were being laid and ambitious plans were in the works to take good advantage of Timor-Leste's oil and gas revenues while they lasted. Timorese were understandably proud of the international role they had carved out for themselves during their decade of independence. The country and the UN mission there looks headed for success.

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