Violence has engulfed East Timor, Asia’s youngest and poorest nation. The situation has exposed deep divisions in the country and threatens to unseat the government of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. Neighboring countries have sent troops to help restore stability, but any military solution will only be temporary. Enduring peace requires a functioning economy. That alone will not heal the wounds that feed violence, but it will help end frustrations that create desperation among Timorese.
East Timorese have many reasons to be unhappy. The Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, as the country is formally known, first came into existence in 1975, when it declared itself independent after four centuries of rule by Portugal. Independence was short-lived: Days later, Indonesia invaded the country and annexed it as a province. Timorese were restive, fighting for greater autonomy and independence from Jakarta.
The struggle yielded a brutal occupation that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths — some estimate the toll as high as one-third of the population — and blotted Indonesia’s human-rights record.
The financial crisis that rocked Southeast Asia in 1997-98 fatally undermined the government of then Indonesian President Suharto. The ensuing wave of democratization gave Timorese the opportunity to assert their right to self-determination, which they seized in a referendum in 1999, voting for independence. That unleashed another wave of violence that resulted in more than 1,000 deaths; it was generally believed that many of the opponents of independence were supported and armed by forces within Indonesia.
A United Nations transitional administration ruled the territory until East Timor emerged as a sovereign state in 2002. Since then, independence has been nominal, at least insofar as the country remains utterly dependent on foreign aid and assistance, with virtually no domestic economy.
The most recent unrest began in March when the government fired 600 of its 1,400 soldiers, charging them with insubordination. Those troops, most of whom were from the western part of the country, had left their posts complaining that they had been discriminated against and that most military leaders come from the east. This geographic division also reflects a divide among Timorese who favored independence and those against it.
Disgruntled police joined the rebels. An attack on unarmed police last week revealed the security vacuum in Dili; rival gangs then began to run wild, leaving at least 30 people dead, more than 50 wounded and tens of thousands homeless and seeking refuge at shelters. There are fears that a civil war might break out.
There is another dimension to the Timor crisis: domestic politics. Prime Minister Alkatiri is weak. He took office after most better known and more charismatic Timorese leaders left the Fretilin party, which had championed the cause of independence, to take national positions to promote reconciliation. Charges of corruption and authoritarianism have dogged his administration. President Xanana Gusmao has said he is assuming responsibility for the country’s security, but Mr. Alkatiri has insisted that he is still in charge of the armed forces, adding to the confusion.
Neighboring countries have responded to the crisis by sending in some 2,400 peacekeepers. The majority — some 2,000 troops — are from Australia, but there are also troops from Malaysia and New Zealand. Australia has also sent more than 50 police officers to help rebuild law enforcement authorities and investigate incidents that triggered the violence. While the peacekeepers have been able to secure the airport, and several other key facilities such as Parliament and presidential palace, more forces may be needed.
Restoring stability is only a start. The situation in the country is desperate: Tens of thousands of Timorese are living in tent cities without basic necessities such as food and water. The arson that accompanied the recent looting means that many of them will remain in those camps. There is a more basic problem in East Timor, however: the government’s failure to build a working economy. The country exports some coffee and earns some revenue from the sale of oil and gas revenues. But half the working population is reckoned to be unemployed, and 42 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Foreign aid is some seven times the country’s GDP.
East Timor needs a functioning economy. The violence of recent weeks may be suppressed, but without jobs for its citizens and hopes for the future it will resurface. Helping East Timor is going to be a long and demanding process. Stability is required, but it will not turn the country around. Aid is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Money, patience and creativity will be needed in equal parts. There is no time to lose.
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