A UN “liquidation team” will take over in East Timor today from peacekeepers who put a lid on deadly unrest in the tiny nation marking a first decade of turbulent existence.
That would instill fear in most countries where UN missions are sent. However, this team will be dismantling the UN presence after the global body claims a rare success.
East Timor is calm again after its people realized they were close to pressing the self-destruct button, according to a top UN official who led much of the peacekeeping operation after the country sought international help in 2006.
Troops sent by Australia and New Zealand have all gone home and only a handful of UN police will be left when the flag comes down in Dili.
“As of Monday, the liquidation team will be there. They are the ones who are unscrewing all the light bulbs,” said Ameerah Haq, UN undersecretary-general and former head of the UN mission in East Timor, while acknowledging that the crisis could have been worse.
The UN played a key role in the birth of East Timor, officially known as Timor Leste.
It organized the 1999 referendum that ended 24 years of Indonesian occupation in which an estimated 183,000 people died through conflict, starvation or disease.
It helped run East Timor until 2002, when an independent government took over.
For many Timorese leaders, it was a national humiliation to seek UN help in 2006, when soldiers dismissed from the army launched a mutiny that sparked factional violence that left dozens dead and 150,000 in in makeshift camps.
“You don’t want to say that a country learned by crisis,” Haq said, but in this case there was “good benefit” from the Timorese seeing in a few days the burning, looting and destruction threatening all they had built in the past seven years.
“They just saw it collapse before their eyes and it was like: We did this to ourselves,” she said.
“It was a watershed moment in their experience,” Haq said.
The UN was able to make an impact because it was the East Timor government that asked for help and working in a country the size of Timor was not like bringing peace to Sudan or the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“In Timor, everything happened as it should,” Haq said. “We had great access to the leadership, we had complete freedom of movement within the country.”
The country has now had two relatively calm presidential elections, the 3,000 strong police force has been retrained district-by-district and the judiciary reformed.
Haq said she had seen political tensions boil up again.
There were times when she would tell political leaders to “tone down the rhetoric.”
“They would always tell me:’We all struggled together, we all saw what happened in 2006.’ They always assured me they would always stop short of the trigger. I learned to have confidence in that,” she said.
The big powers are now taking a more intense look at East Timor, which has significant oil and gas reserves, even though it remains one of the most impoverished countries.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited in September, China built the presidential palace and military headquarters. Brazil is also a key source of aid, while Cuba has trained hundreds of Timorese doctors.
Haq said East Timor knows that it must now concentrate on lifting the half of the 1.1 million population living below the poverty line.
With the country’s oil-based sovereign wealth fund now above US$11 billion, it has resources.
Silas Everett of the Asia Foundation said the government has to work harder on improving the business environment.
“Like other poor, newly democratic, oil-dependent nations, Timor-Leste’s development dreams are likely to be increasingly interrupted by instances of corruption, largess and inefficiency in its institutions for some time,” he said in a recent commentary.
“It is these very institutions, abiding by and upholding the rule of law, that are needed to turn petro-dollars into broad based economic growth for the benefit of all rather than for a few powerful elite,” he said.