2012's sleeper story: Success in Timor-Leste


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A week later, Carlos, a native of Puerto Rico, was barricaded in his office, sending what would be his last email. Militia members, he wrote, “act without thinking and can kill a human as easily (and painlessly) as I kill mosquitos in my room.” Moments after his email was sent, militias broke down the doors and windows of the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, brutally murdering Carlos and two of his colleagues. Carlos was only 33 years old.

More than a decade later, Carlos’ words still haunt me, but today I am comforted by the knowledge that his sacrifice, and that of so many Timorese, meant something. As December 31st nears, and the last of the UN Peacekeepers brought in to restore peace and stability in the small Southeast Asian nation board a plane home, Timor-Leste has begun to emerge from the darkest kind of violence because of the United Nations and heroes like Carlos.

A positive future for Timor-Leste was not always in the cards. I visited Timor-Leste shortly after the Indonesian army had lost its quarter-century grasp on the island, ending an occupation that claimed the lives of more than 200,000 through violence, hunger and illness. The human impact of the occupation had been, in part, brought to the world’s attention by Members of Congress, including Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and former Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.).

During my visit, the wounds were—figuratively and literally—still fresh. Only one year before, the Indonesian government bowed to international pressure and agreed to a UN-administered referendum on independence. Indonesia was enduring its own tumultuous transition from 30 years of autocratic rule under President Suharto. Reluctant to release its grasp on the region, Indonesia simultaneously armed militia to deter voters, brutalizing and terrorizing them. And when the Timorese people overwhelmingly chose independence, the militias torched homes and buildings all the way to the border.

Under the leadership of the legendary Brazilian diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was later killed in an attack on the UN in Iraq, the UN took on significantly increased responsibilities. UN workers like Carlos Caceres  were often the only force standing between the militias and hundreds of thousands of Timorese refugees displaced by violence. UN workers from around the world worked with the leadership in Timor-Leste to establish rule of law and a functioning political system, while UN Peacekeepers began to restore law and order.

The journey from those dark days is nothing short of remarkable. Today, Timor-Leste is a functioning democracy with two free and fair Presidential and Parliamentary elections facilitated by the UN under its belt. The UN is leaving a democratically-elected legislature that is 38 percent female – the highest representation of women in parliament in the entire Asia-Pacific region.

Oil and gas money from the offshore Bayu-Undan field is flowing into a $10 billion Petroleum Fund, which is carefully administered to avoid the “oil curse” on developing countries.

The UN peacekeeping mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT)—the remaining UN peacekeeping mission in East Asia—will leave behind a fully self-sufficient Timorese national police force. UNMIT has strengthened Timorese police by helping to recruit, vet and train police officers; support relationships between the police and judiciary; and promote human rights and address gender-based violence.

And Timor-Leste and Indonesia have built a new relationship, as Indonesia has waged its own efforts to end government corruption and elect accountable leaders.

To be sure, the Timorese journey has not been without its road-bumps and lessons learned. From the onset, members of the Security Council underestimated the potential for violence surrounding the referendum and failed to dispatch Peacekeepers to protect civilians. Additionally, a 2005 effort to phase-down the UN presence was premature, and when paired with an under-developed security sector, violence between the police and military ensued. Instability continued, including a later assassination attempt on Timor-Leste’s President.

However, with a subsequently steady investment from UN peacekeeping troops, the UN-Timor-Leste partnership has made a meaningful, long-lasting impact on the country and the region. In fact, Timor-Leste is now giving back to the international community that has enabled its peace by contributing its own troops to UN peacekeeping missions in Lebanon and South Sudan. Its presence is small, but it is a beginning.

As we look back on 2012’s deadly global turmoil in places like Syria, and towards growing conflicts like Mali, Timor-Leste is this year’s sleeper success story. The nation’s path to recovery – including a steady investment from the UN – has been no question a long one. Yet it reveals a model that has saved lives, enabled an operational democracy, and created huge potential for economic growth. I hope and believe that Carlos Caceres  would have been proud.

Yeo is the executive director of the Better World Campaign.