Timor-Leste’s Failings: Why the World Should Care

Posted in Asia | 10-Jun-06 | Author: Fiona Rotberg

Dr. Fiona J. Y. Rotberg is WSN Editor Environmental Security Issues.

Uppsala, Sweden

On May 20, 2002, Timor-Leste (formally known as East Timor) was unleashed to “control its own destiny.” However, as evidenced by recent horrors on the streets, the world’s youngest nation was not yet ready to take charge of itself, nor its’ destiny.

Sovereignty was celebrated in 2002, but governing institutions, backed up by strong leaders, where not yet in place. Following the euphoria of sovereignty, the country held its first parliamentary elections, electing President Xanana Gusmao to office.

Members of the world community will likely agree that gangs that kill people on streets and create a state of terror, and soldiers that fire on policemen, as has been witnessed recently in Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste, are not good things. But it is more than that: Citizens, especially in a democratic society, deserve functioning institutions and reliable, secure services. Just so, they deserve strong, legitimate leadership and good governance from their elected officials. Without human security and basic services, the country could likely fall from the record books of the latest young democratic nation to emulate, to the list of failed states. With analysis and reflection, leaders and international security policy experts with interests in countries that have similar preconditions to Timor-Leste, can potentially learn from this disturbing case, and avoid unneeded lost lives.

As the world has recently witnessed in Nepal, the lack of the monarch’s legitimacy and its inability to cope with both the growing Maoist insurgency and the environmental and economic pressures put on the Nepali population helped lead the way to near and total state disarray. Thus, Nepal’s state capacity, as a function of legitimacy, internal coherence, and responsiveness, certainly led to civil violence and the eventual teetering on failure.

Although a central issue that sparked the chaos in Timor - Leste during the last month was that Mr. Alkatiri, the prime minister, fired almost half of the army after they went on strike, citing low pay; the leaders themselves seem to be at the heart of the current unrest. Mr. Mari Alkatiri, and Mr. Gusmao have had a breakdown in their relationship. Mr. Alkatiri and Mr. Gusmao have been vying for power for some time, with the rebel troops generally loyal to Mr. Gusmao, and members of the former guerrilla political wing siding with Alkatiri. And Mr. Alkatiri and his family members have been widely accused of corruption. If the leaders can move away from bickering, then the root causes of the current violence can be identified, and the country can begin to rebuild their fragile institutions.

After four centuries of Portuguese colonial rule, and 24 years of Indonesian occupation, it is perhaps not much surprise that firmly grounded, confident, self running government institutions have not yet taken hold.

The United Nations Security Council decreed in April of this year, that the promotion of a democratic nation is linked to “economic growth, poverty eradication, sustainable development, and national reconciliation.” Likewise, education, political accountability, functioning justice systems, and basic human rights must be in place if a nation state wants to keep away from the dreaded label of failure. The decline of the state’s capacity to secure basic public goods and an increase in civil violence are certainly preconditions to a failing state. Lack of human security and economic deprivation can also lead to institutional disruption, and civil strife (as also seen widely in Nepal); and an eventual breakdown of the state.

Timor-Leste has one of the highest rates of child mortality in the world. Forty-one percent of the population lives in poverty and only 52% enjoy the label of literacy. In late 1999, approximately 70% of the economic infrastructure of East Timor was laid waste by Indonesian troops. Widespread use of slash and burn agriculture that has led to deforestation and soil erosion has made it difficult for many to eke out a living.

The world should care about Timor-Leste because bloodshed and death on the streets of any nation is shameful and certainly undemocratic. The international community should take stock of what went wrong in Timor-Leste (including an analysis of whether the United Nations Mission of Support in East Timor was adequate to provide needed institutional foundations for a stable and lasting government) so that future young state failures can be avoided. Did the United Nations pull out too early, for example? If so, why? Analysis and discussion among international security policy experts can lead to needed learning and avoidance of unneeded bloodshed and loss of life.

Dr. Fiona J.Y. Rotberg is the Director of the Environmental Security in Asia Project at the Central Asia Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program at Uppsala University, Sweden.