Nation building in East Timor.

Author:Steele, Jonathan

In the new world disorder of the post--Cold War period, United Nations peacekeeping has moved far beyond the patrolling of cease-fire lines to encompass a wide range of administrative, humanitarian, and reconstruction tasks within shattered countries. Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister with long experience in the U.N. system, who was asked by Kofi Annan in 2000 to prepare a report on reforming peacekeeping, has called these "peace-building" tasks.

In the case of East Timor, the Security Council devised a unique mandate. For the first time in history, it took total control of a country, with all executive, legislative, judicial, and even military power vested in its appointed administrator, who ran everything from the power stations and fire departments to radio, television, and a U.N. newspaper. So when Kofi Annan watched the blue U.N. flag come down over Dili, East Timor's capital, at midnight this past May 19, the tropical air hung heavy with colonial antecedents. The secretary general was not just a VIP at someone else's independence party. He was an imperial sovereign handing over the reins of power.

The mission he closed was the shortest, least bloody, most benevolent, and possibly most successful colonization since the Middle Ages. But, in carrying out its mandate, UNTAET made mistakes from which future U.N. missions would do well to learn.

UNTAET's very name--United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor--conceded that this was no proud empire on which the sun would never set. U.N. Resolution 1272 of October 25, 1999, which authorized the mission, did not mention an exit date, but U.N. members foresaw a timeframe of two, perhaps three, years.

In early September 1999, Indonesia had agreed to withdraw from East Timor and allow an Australian-led peace force to enter the territory to guarantee security. UNTAET was to take over command from the Australians and create a civil administration to run the country until independence.

The Security Council had authorized a large, though less comprehensive and dominant, U.N. administration for Kosovo only four months earlier. The timetable for the Kosovo mission was open, since none of the five permanent members of the council could stomach the goal of independence for the territory, even though its Albanian majority ardently wanted it. East Timor was different. The council's objective was clear, the timeframe was to be limited, and although the Bush administration was not yet in existence, nation building was already frowned on by major states. UNTAET would be Quickfixville.

East Timor is half of a small mountainous tropical island in the Indonesian archipelago, about 400 miles north of Australia. First settled by the Portuguese in the seventeenth century, the island was divided in 1859, with Portugal taking the eastern half and the Dutch the western. While the Dutch pulled out soon after the Second World War, leaving West Timor to Indonesia, the Portuguese remained in the east. After centuries of Portuguese rule, the 700,000 people of East Timor, though ethnically similar, were distinguished from the West Timorese by their strong Catholicism and their use of the Portuguese language.

With the overthrow of fascism in Portugal in 1974 by the Armed Forces' Movement, East Timor's independence became an issue. The political party of the elite, the Timorese Democratic Union (uDT), preferred federation with Portugal, while Fretilin (the Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor) was a typical Third World liberation movement with a vaguely socialist orientation. As the Indonesians watched covetously from the wings, the UDT launched an armed coup in August 1975 to try to destroy Fretilin. But the UDT had little popular support. Fretilin and its hastily formed army, Falintil, defeated the UDT, whose members fled to West Timor. The Portuguese administration hurried from the capital, Dili, to the island of Atauro, and Portugal made it clear it would no longer rule the colony.

The UDT looked to Indonesia to help it gain control, and Indonesian troops and the UDT mounted several incursions in October and November 1975. On November 28, Fretilin declared independence and appealed for international support. But its socialist rhetoric worried the United States, Australia, and other Western governments. Smarting from defeat in Vietnam, President Gerald Ford and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, did not want a new left-wing "threat" to emerge in Southeast Asia.

Indonesia stepped up preparations for a full-scale invasion of East Timor. U.S. intelligence knew what was happening, and before a visit to Jakarta by Ford in December 1975, according to newly published official documents (see, Kissinger prepared talking points saying the "merger" of East Timor with Indonesia was "a reasonable solution." In Jakarta, the Indonesian dictator, General Suharto, discussed his intentions with Ford, who told him, "We understand and will not press you on the issue." Kissinger's only worries were that he and Ford get out of the country before any invasion. "If you have made plans, we will do our best to keep quiet until the president returns home," Kissinger told Suharto.

Indonesia duly invaded two days later. Although the United States withheld official recognition of the annexation (only Australia recognized it), Washington maintained close ties with the Suharto regime until its fall in 1998. Falintil mounted a guerrilla war, but the civilian population took terrible losses at the hands of the Indonesian occupiers. Indonesia routinely denied visas to journalists and human rights monitors to visit the island. East Timorese leaders, including the current foreign minister, Dr. Jose Ramos-Horta, and the bishop of Dili, Carlos Ximenes Belo (who jointly shared the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize), helped keep the issue alive at the United Nations- which regularly condemned Indonesia's occupation-but the United States did nothing to try to end it.

After Suharto's fall, his successor, B. J. Habibie, offered to let the United Nations organize a referendum in East Timor on independence or autonomy within Indonesia. Indonesian military leaders were unhappy. They paid local Timorese to join armed militias to work with the army in support of the pro-autonomy side. In a ruthless campaign of violence and intimidation, they first tried to influence the result of the U.N. referendum and then launched a frenzy of terrorism when voters chose freedom. In five months of wanton destruction in 1999, troops and militias looted and torched tens of thousands of private homes and public buildings, smashing electricity generators and sabotaging or stealing equipment. Eighty-five percent of the country's schools and three-quarters of its health infrastructure were destroyed.

A quarter of a million Timorese fled across the border to the Indonesian province of West Timor. Some were members of the militias who feared the wrath of their East Timorese victims once U.N. peace forces arrived, but most were ordinary villagers from East Timor, who were forcibly deported on trucks or ships by the fleeing militias. Almost the entire remaining population of East Timor fled to the hills. Several hundred who decided to take shelter in churches or in the Roman Catholic bishop's compound in Dili were killed. Even today, the number of unreconstructed buildings is formidable. At Manatuto, east of Dili on the northern coast, translucent blue-green water washes across coral to a beach where every building on the seafront is roofless, doors and windows burned to ash. In Maliana, near the border with West Timor, the police station where dozens vainly sought protection from the militias is a silent shell, and the only sign of new construction is a memorial to the dead of Black September.

In Dili, you can push your way past banana fronds and head-high cassava plants and find blocks of ruins hidden from the road. "We had no alternative but to plant here," Rosantina Leal explained with visible embarrassment when I came upon her in the Indonesian military cemetery in Dili. In the ground behind the rows of soldier's graves, she and several dozen other people had sown corn and cassava. We crouched through a hole in the cemetery's back wall and found ourselves in a small settlement of wrecked houses. Some were still empty. In others, villagers had put up palm-leaf thatch where corrugated iron once lay across wooden timbers. "We have great respect for the Indonesian graves and don't touch them, but we have no jobs and no money to build a new roc)f. We have to survive somehow," Leal said. In September 1999, her husband and their four older children escaped into the hills. Pregnant, she took shelter in a Catholic seminary before militias burned her home and those of her neighbors.

A Destroyed Country

Restoring security in this destroyed country was the top...

To continue reading