Thursday, July 27, 2006

Lessons from Timor Leste

Singapore, 25 July 2006

Analysis News

By Thang D Nguyen

Dili used to blame Jakarta for the bloodshed in Timor Leste before the latter gained independence from Indonesia and became the world’s youngest nation in 1999.

Since then, however, Dili has been responsible for its own destiny, including the waves of violence that have rocked Timor Leste in the past two months.

The violence began after former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri sacked 600 of the country’s 1,400-strong army after they went on strike to protest what they said was discrimination against those from the west of the country.

Fighting between rebel soldiers and government forces has disintegrated into street violence involving gangs, the killing of innocent civilians, looting of public facilities and torching of houses in Dili. Shortly after violence broke out, the authorities sought assistance from the international community.

Thus far, the United Nations has sent aid supplies to Dili. Several countries — namely Australia, Malaysia and Portugal — have helped by sending troops and police, while others have pledged financial aid packages.

The crisis in Dili continues, and there is no sign of a solution. But several lessons can be learned from the situation.

First, the UN forces left East Timor too soon. In August 1999, the East Timorese voted for independence from Indonesia, but the voting was followed by violence perpetrated by pro-Indonesia militias.

Thus, the UN sent an Australian-led international force to restore order in Dili, and later established the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor mission to help build the world’s newest nation.

In 2001, the UN left East Timor as the country seemed capable of handling its own affairs. But as the ongoing crisis in Dili shows, the UN should have stayed longer.

Second, Dili was not ready for independence from Indonesia, even though its people’s vote for it was overwhelming.

In a Cabinet meeting in January 1999, former President B J Habibie told his ministers that, between autonomy and independency, Jakarta should give Dili the latter. His rationale was that East Timor was more of a liability than an asset to Indonesia.

He reportedly said to some colleagues: “Why do we have this problem when we have a mountain of other problems? Do we get any oil? No. Do we get gold? No. All we get is rocks. If the East Timorese are ungrateful after what we have done for them, why should we hang on?”

Mr Habibie’s economic ministers supported his view because an independent East Timor would relieve them of a financial burden.

Some other ministers even said that an independent East Timor would allow Indonesia — the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation — “to be rid of 600,000 Catholics,” referring to the religion of the majority of people in the former Portuguese colony. And so East Timor’s independence was granted. But, as early as 1997, the East Timorese former resistance leader and now President, Xanana Gusmao — with his colleagues Jose Ramos Horta and Bishop Carlos Bello — had said that viable independence in East Timor would require a preparatory period of five to 10 years. They were correct, weren’t they?

Third, Australia’s coax for East Timor’s split from Indonesia was not as good as it sounded at the time. The history of East Timor’s independence started with a letter sent by Prime Minister John Howard in December 1998 to then interim President Habibie suggesting that Jakarta should give Dili the right to self-determination after a period of autonomy.

When asked about Australia’s involvement in East Timor, Mr Howard said it was “the most positive and noble act by Australia in ... international relations in the last 20 years”. Was it?

For one thing, the Howard government saw the atrocities committed by the Indonesian military in East Timor before 1999 as an opportunity to enhance its international image. By helping the East Timorese, Australia could portray itself as a moral beacon in the Asia-Pacific region. Australia, it seems, did not help East Timor out of altruism.

Furthermore, being its immediate northern neighbour, chaotic East Timor was perceived as a source of trouble — if not danger — to Australia. By intervening in East Timor, Canberra was actually helping itself by, among other things, preventing unwanted immigrants from going to Australia.

Finally, contrary to the Howard administration’s belief, Australia’s involvement in East Timor has damaged its relations with Indonesia, its most important neighbour. It will take years to repair the ties between the two countries.

As the crisis in Dili continues, one wonders if the Australians can really help the Timorese this time around. Meanwhile, let us hope that East Timor will not become another Haiti.