East Timor Becomes a Symbol of Upheaval
Wednesday, May 31, 2006; 2:13 PM
DILI, East Timor -- East Timor was supposed to be a showcase for U.N. nation-building, a rousing symbol of how a downtrodden land could stand on its own with help from the world.
Instead, one of Asia's poorest countries became an emblem of upheaval as the army battled former soldiers in the capital and gangs burned homes and assaulted each other with machetes.
Australian-led forces, who came to East Timor in the midst of a bloody transition from Indonesian rule in 1999, are back to keep the peace in the capital. Virtually all government offices are closed, and many lawmakers have fled.
It's a sad departure from 2002, when East Timor declared independence in a joyous display of fireworks, traditional dance and drum music after a period of U.N. oversight and an infusion of international aid. U.N. chief Kofi Annan and former President Bill Clinton were among the celebrants.
So why did the former Portuguese colony descend so abruptly into brutality and political paralysis?
"These sorts of problems are absolutely common to newly independent, postcolonial states. They always have a lot of things to sort out," said Damien Kingsbury, an Australian academic and an expert on East Timor.
"The belief is always that independence is the end of the struggle, whereas in reality independence is the beginning of the struggle," he said.
East Timor is an extreme case, a neglected territory where violence and deprivation became routine for many people during 24 years of harsh Indonesian occupation. Their hopes that conditions would suddenly improve after independence were all but impossible to fulfill.
"They don't see the benefits in economic terms," said Zhu Xian, who directs World Bank operations in East Timor. "That probably generated a lot of frustration."
He said many new nations lapse into violence five years after independence as an early surge of optimism fades and deeply rooted tensions overwhelm weak, untested institutions.
East Timor is no exception, despite the efforts of a transitional U.N. administration that drew nearly 10,000 civilian and military personnel to the country of fewer than 1 million people.
The territory was a key focus for the United Nations because militias linked to the Indonesian military killed, burned and pillaged after East Timor voted for an end to Indonesian rule.