Subject: Not quite a success story, yet

Bangkok Post Saturday October 28, 2006


Not quite a success story, yet

The topic of foreign intervention is a driving one in the present global discourse on international politics - and East Timor provides an interesting case study


With America's adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan faltering and United Nations peace-keeping missions stretched thin and struggling from Haiti to the Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the world is looking for proof that "interventionism" can produce positive results, especially for the longer term.

The world's intercession in East Timor has often been hailed as the best example of a successful intervention by the international community acting through the United Nations which, following a referendum in East Timor that voted for independence from Indonesia in 1999, took stewardship of the world's newest country until 2002 when it gained full independence.

However, after over five years of relative calm, East Timor was wracked anew by political violence in April and May this year that left over 100,000 East Timorese displaced and prompted nearly 3,000 foreign troops, led by Australia, to be rushed back to the freshly chaotic country.

The political violence first erupted after the dismissal of hundreds of members of the army, who had complained of ethnic discrimination.

This initial catalyst for domestic tension soon evolved into an internal power struggle within the ruling Fretilin party, prompting clashes between various security forces and running street battles involving mobs of youths.

Ultimately, the crisis provoked mass protests, which led to the resignation of the prime minister.

Following the violence, the East Timor government asked the UN to conduct an inquiry into the incidents of April and May. The report detailing the UN's findings was released in the middle of October and argued that "the crisis... can be explained largely by the frailty of state institutions and the weakness of the rule of law."

The report went on to call for the further investigation of the ex-Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri and the future prosecution of the former interior and defence ministers and the defence chief for illegal weapons transfers to civilians involved in the violence.

How it came to be that the world's newest state, and ostensibly a successful example of interventionism by the international community, required what was essentially a second intervention, yields some important lessons.

The frailty of state institutions and the weakness of the rule of law can largely be seen as a testament to the inconclusiveness of the world's initial intervention in East Timor starting in 1999.

The world simply left East Timor half finished. In typical haste, it was overly quick to declare "mission accomplished" and downgrade its presence in and commitment to the new country after its full independence, by withdrawing peace-keeping forces prematurely and overly diluting the UN's post-independence mandate.

As a first step towards improvement of future interventions, the international community through the UN, needs to revise its unworkably short time-frames.

As an East Timorese political activist explained, "The UN and 'the internationals' have an unrealistic time-frame... they think they can implement very complicated ideas like the rule of law in a couple years, it's impossible."

Furthermore, the international community's failings in East Timor, and it can be argued more broadly, stem from the fact that the purposes of multilateral interventionism are still largely not agreed upon by the international community. The current UN mandate is "consolidating stability, enhancing a culture of democratic governance, and facilitating dialogue among Timorese stakeholders", which is rather broad and vague when one considers how continued interventionism might actually be implemented in any degree of workable detail.

As one prominent East Timorese lawyer explained recently in the capital Dili, the "biggest problem is that the UN doesn't have a clear idea of what it wants to do". This can't really be blamed on the UN itself, but rather the conflicted interests of the major powers, who view intervention as serving different purposes from mere "stabilisation" to a deeper interaction of actual "state building" with all the accusations of colonialism which that entails.

This idea of conflicted mission purposes leading to operational ambiguities was echoed by a staff member of the UN mission who confided that the UN and its major donors still "haven't yet connected peace operations with development operations". Namely, the initial military interventions are relatively easy, especially in small countries like East Timor, but making the longer-term transition to peaceful and sustained development, guided by a competent government and based on the rule of law and democracy, is much harder to do.

What is evident is that whatever problems the international community may have in its approach to intervention, a stronger and longer-term presence in fragile new states like East Timor by the UN is mandatory to those countries' peace and development.

Without the renewed participation of the international community following April and May's violence, it is most likely that East Timor would now be facing "the more dire reality of war, not just law and order issues", as one prominent local political commentator contended. When the UN is present and has the strong support of at least a couple of the major powers, it has done a relatively good job of interventions, at least for the short term.

However, while it is easy to blame the international community for the domestic tumult of a particular country, ultimately that country's leaders must bear most of the blame for its turmoil.

The International Crisis Group, a well regarded think-tank, concluded that East Timor's present disorder was compounded by "the in-bred nature of a tiny political elite" which played a strong role in producing a "dysfunctional government".

East Timor has elections scheduled for May 2007 and the frustration with political instability and stagnant development is palpable on the streets of Dili. One local exclaimed that "all of this reflects the inexperience of those who hold power", while another highlighted in exasperation that East Timor is "not even a whole island, just half of an island" and it is still plagued by seemingly disproportionate amounts of trouble.

That East Timor is a small, seemingly manageable country is a fair point. If the international community, in partnership with the East Timorese leadership, can't get it right and demonstrate that voluntary, multilateral intervention and state-building can produce positive results even in a very small country, what hope is there for larger, especially chaotic countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo?The international community can produce positive results. It just needs to follow through with what it started with a strengthened sense of commitment, a clarified understanding of the UN's purpose, and a lengthened, more realistic time-frame. That would enable a complete transition from initial peace-making to longer-term, sustained development.

Matthew Arnold is a visiting scholar at Chulalongkorn University. 

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