Timor-Leste: Trouble in Paradise

View of East Timor Photo by East Timor Government
This paradise could go up in flames again without long-term international help. (Photo: Courtesy Timor-Leste Tourism Ministry)

East Timor is another lesson for the United Nations as well as Australia that stability and democracy do not develop overnight — even in this paradise.

Kofi Annan wants U.N. peacekeepers to get back in there at East Timor’s request. But Australia, like the United States, told the world body to stay out of its backyard and to concentrate on only humanitarian and development projects.
Some 600 West Timorese soldiers bolted from the military in March (and they were promptly “dismissed”), citing discrimination against West Timorese by Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. Their rebellion, led by Lieutenant Commander Alfredo Reinado, triggered gang violence, riots and looting in the streets and uprooted about 100,000 East Timorese.

Australia had to ship in 1,300 troops. Malaysia, New Zealand and Portugal’s troops make up the rest of more than 2,000 troops patrolling East Timor. There is hope today that Lt. Comm. Reinado is going to disarm soon if ordered to do so by President Xanana Gusmão.

After three decades of conflict, East Timor is not going to wake up one morning and say ‘I love all my neighbors.’ Australia and the United States forced the U.N. to cut short its peacekeeping mission in 2002 and to left the island’s 800,000 inhabitants to the mercy of potential violence.

An Indonesian lawmaker is taking the “I told you so” attitude toward Australia’s intervention in East Timor. Indonesia is the one to talk. Days after the former Portuguese colony declared independence in 1975, Indonesia walked in with a brutal army and killed an estimated quarter-million people.

East Timor is ready for sovereignty, but it is not ready for complete self-rule. Australia and the U.N. must make a long-term commitment to foster a culture that supports democracy. Its police forces must be placed under U.N. mandate and various factions inside the military integrated by international advisors. Else, this paradise could go up in flames again.

East Timor is no longer the world’s newest country.

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