In E. Timor, an Optimistic Enterprise Turns to Ashes

An Australian soldier bandages an injured East Timorese youth. Hundreds of foreign troops are joining an Australian- led force trying to quell the worst violence in the desperately poor country since it broke from Indonesia in 1999.
An Australian soldier bandages an injured East Timorese youth. Hundreds of foreign troops are joining an Australian- led force trying to quell the worst violence in the desperately poor country since it broke from Indonesia in 1999. (By Firdia Lisnawati -- Associated Press)
By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 2, 2006

DILI, East Timor -- The colonial-era Palácio do Governo, with its white portico and stunning seafront vista, has long been a symbol of foreign domination here. The edifice has housed Portuguese imperialists, Indonesian occupiers and, more recently, U.N. administrators, who moved in after East Timor voted for independence in 1999. It wasn't until 2004 that senior ministers of this young country finally took full occupancy.

Now the foreigners are back. As smoke from burning homes billowed behind them, Australian soldiers in full combat gear took up positions along the second-floor veranda. They were part of a week-old international effort to restore order in a country unable to quell violence by its own rival security forces and marauding gangs.

"I feel disappointed because there has been so much foreign aid helping East Timor, and this is the result. It's all destroyed," said Leonardo Pinto, 29, a boyish-faced refugee who fled arson attacks in his neighborhood for the safety of a seaside churchyard. "I'm ashamed that our officials can't handle this problem themselves and have to invite in foreign forces."

East Timor had been the model for U.N. nation-building, hailed as an example of a modern state raised literally from ashes with the help of international cash and expertise. The island had been left devastated by Indonesian-backed militias, which went on a rampage of burning and looting after the East Timorese voted to break away.

The story of the country's return to anarchy and foreign dependency last week is one of grievances wired into the state at its creation, especially within the security forces, and then ignored by East Timorese leaders and foreign officials.

"Our mistakes have been so costly to the people and to our country," Foreign Minister José Ramos-Horta said in an interview. "If we are not mature enough, let's get the Australians to stay indefinitely."

Ramos-Horta, a Nobel peace laureate, said East Timor had been too weak to manage its own affairs when it declared independence in 2002, taking over from a transitional U.N. authority, and too anxious for U.N. advisers and peacekeepers to leave afterward. A mission that at its peak included nearly 11,000 peacekeepers and international police officers had, by this year, shrunk to fewer than 400 U.N. workers, most of them involved in political matters. "The Timorese side was over-optimistic and over-confident and thought they should let the U.N. go," Ramos-Horta said. "The U.N. itself was eager to disengage as soon as possible.".

The international effort to create this new nation of about 900,000 people was unprecedented. Since 1999, the U.N and foreign governments have rebuilt a country where about three-quarters of the houses, schools and other buildings had been destroyed in militia violence. International agencies extended basic health care, education, electricity and other services across remote districts. The United Nations took the lead in building government ministries and agencies from scratch, including the courts and national police, by providing training, equipment and advice.

But this ambitious undertaking overlooked fundamental fissures inside East Timor's newly established armed forces and police.

When the armed forces were created, the senior officers were appointed from the guerrilla movement that had battled the Indonesians for 24 years. Most of them were from the easternmost part of the country, where the insurgency had been strongest. For balance, recruits were drawn from the western portion of East Timor, but they went largely into the lower ranks. Complaints of discrimination soon surfaced.

The East Timorese administration promised the World Bank and foreign governments it would address these grievances by adopting codes governing promotion and discipline, but the pledge was never fulfilled.

"If the international community had held the Timorese to their commitments, we would not have the current problem in the military," said a Western diplomat in East Timor who asked not to be identified on the grounds that it was inappropriate for him to criticize governments on the record. "The international community never stood up to the Timorese in the last three years."

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