Kathy Marks: The tragedy of the world's newest nation

The swiftness of East Timor's descent into anarchy and violence has shocked observers
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The Independent Online

For those who witnessed the mayhem that followed East Timor's vote for independence, the recent scenes in Dili of machete-wielding mobs and buildings set ablaze seem like déjà vu. This time, though, Indonesian-backed militias are not to blame. The world's newest nation is imploding all by itself.

The swiftness of East Timor's descent into anarchy and violence has shocked many observers, who expected its problems to end when Indonesian troops withdrew in 1999. Rarely has a country been the repository of so much goodwill from the international community, which has pumped in billions of dollars of aid as well as personnel and expertise.

East Timor was an emblem of hope, a little place that had fought courageously to shake off the shackles of occupation and was standing on its own feet, helped by the United Nations and wealthy friends such as Japan and Australia. There was a nobility about it, personified by Xanana Gusmao, the charismatic guerrilla leader who became the new country's President. Now that image has been smashed, and the idealists are realising it is a monumental task to build a nation from scratch, particularly one with a history soaked in brutality and bloodshed.

Australian and other foreign troops, dispatched in response to an urgent request for help, are starting to make their presence felt in Dili. But restoring law and order is only the first challenge facing East Timor's leaders.

The seeds of the unrest lie in the country's turbulent past, and in long-standing ethnic divisions. The apparent trigger was the dismissal this year of nearly half the army. But trouble had been brewing for years, and should have been foreseen by the UN, and by East Timor's neighbour and close ally, Australia. East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, was supposed to be a showcase for UN nation-building. The UN sponsored the independence referendum in 1999 and set up a transitional administration to run the country.

Most of the infrastructure had been destroyed, and there was no civil service and only a handful of doctors and teachers. Buildings were rebuilt under UN supervision, and international advisers helped to train a judiciary and defence force. Peaceful elections were held, and in 2002 the reins of government were handed over to East Timor, which prepared to enjoy the fruits of its hard-won independence.

It is now clear that the UN, which withdrew its peacekeepers last year, left the fledgling country to its own devices too quickly. The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, acknowledged as much this week, and expressed regret. But the UN could have done more to stave off the current crisis. It was warned months ago by one of its own security consultants that East Timor's defence force was a threat to internal stability.

The 600 soldiers who deserted and were subsequently sacked were mainly from the west of the country. They claimed they had been discriminated against, in terms of pay and promotions, by the military's top brass, most of whom come from the east. They staged a series of demonstrations in Dili, one of which turned into a riot in which five people died.

It sounded like an obscure and relatively minor issue, but it illustrated a deeper east-west split that now threatens to tear East Timor apart. Many Falintil guerrillas who resisted Jakarta's 24-year occupation were from the east, while people from the west were seen, for the most part unfairly, as collaborators who supported Indonesia.

Regional resentments continued to simmer after independence and, in the recent unrest, spats between renegade soldiers and troops loyal to the government quickly gave way to street warfare between rival gangs from east and west.

But aside from the ethnic divisions, problems within the security forces were inevitable in a country reared on authoritarian rule and military oppression. To expect East Timor's army and paramilitary police to embrace the habits of democracy overnight was unreasonable. That was confirmed by a Human Rights Watch report in April that documented dozens of cases of police torturing and beating up suspects.

The street violence - which has displaced 100,000 people, one-tenth of the population, who fled their homes in fear - has also exposed simmering discontent in the wider community. Many East Timorese are disillusioned about the government's failure to deliver better living conditions. High expectations post independence have been dashed. The country remains the poorest in South-east Asia, with 40 per cent unemployment and one of the world's highest child mortality rates. Social factors meant that the ethnically based gangs were joined by troublemakers with more general grievances, particularly bored teenagers with time on their hands.

People are angry, too, about their government's appeasement of Indonesia, and its reluctance to press for retribution for atrocities committed during the occupation. Many senior military figures implicated in war crimes are living freely in Indonesia. The unmistakable message, for the East Timorese, is that violence goes unpunished. Many ordinary citizens feel they have been denied justice. That is not a healthy foundation on which to build a new nation.

While Gusmao is still a folk hero, the government is seen as remote and out of touch. The focus of disaffection is the Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri, who bears much of the responsibility for allowing an industrial dispute within the military to escalate. A well-publicised split between him and Gusmao has not helped to defuse matters. There is no doubt that Alkatiri has to resign, or be sacked, before the country can get back to normal.

But it will take more than that to secure East Timor's future. The country requires more assistance from allies such as Australia, which was in a hurry to get its peacekeeping troops out and was inexplicably tough in negotiations about sharing the revenue from oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea - East Timor's only possible source of wealth.

There are lessons, too, for the UN, which needs to make a longer-term commitment to new nations trying to build democratic institutions. It is not the first time that violence has followed the departure of a UN force from an area of conflict.

In the case of East Timor, the UN's mandate, which has left a residual mission of political observers in the country, runs out this month. That mandate needs to be extended, and possibly bolstered, to provide for a new peacekeeping mission. Otherwise, sooner rather than later, East Timor runs a serious risk of descending into civil war.