Ricardo Goulão Santos

Timor-Leste underwent another rite of passage of its fledgling democracy last July, and did so with flying colours, it seems. Praised, among others, by the UN Secretary General, the European Union and the Lusophone Community, the parliamentary elections, the third since Independence, were peaceful and almost entirely free of the issues which overshadowed the 2007 elections.

That this is something to celebrate and not simply consider a normal, expected, turn of events, stems from the problematic history of this country, during the long period of Portuguese colonisation and more so during the Indonesian occupation under Suahrto’s ruthless  military regime. Historical records, researched by Geoffrey Gunn (1999) show how the Portuguese administrators capitalised on internal divides and contentions between Timorese peoples to stifle any eventual revolt against their colonial hold – the classic ‘divide and conquer’. The Indonesian occupation, from 1975 to 1999, had an extensive record of brutality which scarred most of the Timorese still alive today. The occupation ended with a disturbing example of violent reaction against democratic choice, when, following the massive popular vote for independence, Indonesian military and Timorese militia they sponsored enacted brutal beatings, killings, arson and forced displacement. A testimony of these actions can be found in almost 400 indictments issued by the UN-established Serious Crime Unit. With such a heavy legacy, one could expect difficult times in the wake of independence.

The international discourse, on the other hand, told a different story. After those terrible days, the UN’s effort to reconstruct the new country of Timor-Leste was deemed as a brilliant example of the International Communicty’s new-found capacity for “Nation Building” (see Steele 2002). Sure enough, after the peaceful elections in 2001 for the Constituent Assembly, the UN started to prepare the consignation of full powers for the elected representatives of the Timorese People. In May 2002 the Timorese Independence was restored. The “United Nations Transitional Administration” gave way to a short lived “United Nations Mission of Support”. Basking in the glories of a job well done, it was time for the “forces of peace” to lay eyes on other terrains and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 prompted a sudden redeployment of US forces and their allies. In 2004 the UN considered that Timor-Leste no longer required a military presence. Timor-Leste was a built nation.

Two years after, Timor-Leste was a “Failed State” (for an article discussing this attribution, read Cotton 2007). The fall from grace – “proud example” to “basket case” took but 2 years and yet, the roots of the divisions inside the Timorese Army which triggered the events of 2006 were known by those who closely worked and trained the new Defence Forces of Timor-Leste. Now, it is assumed that the exit was too quick, too ill-prepared. Timor-Leste passed from being an example of “nation building” to gaining the dishonourable status of Failed State , according to the Fund for Peace Failed States Index, where it has been listed since 2008.

After this “re-branding exercise”, better  equipped police forces were sent to Timor-Leste under the mandate of the “United Nations Integrated Mission” (UNMIT). Timor-Leste became, again, a country of concern to United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Following UNSC’s decision, UNMIT’s mission was extended and is under evaluation to eventually end shortly after the elections, now that these have been deemed successful. Timor-Leste may not be that “fragile” after all.

But now, it is Timor Leste that does not shun the qualifier of “fragile state”. Much to the contrary, during the first OECD International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding, held in Dili, the capital city of Timor-Leste, a new group was born: the g7+, a group of countries self-defined as “fragile and conflict afflicted”. They are: Afghanistan, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Liberia, Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Solomon Islands, South Sudan, Timor-Leste, and Togo. These countries don’t claim they are not “fragile”, but they clearly reject being “failed”. As their charter proclaims:

“We, the member countries of the g7+, believe fragile states are characterized and classified through the lens of the developed rather than through the eyes of the developing.”

Timor-Leste and its leadership learned from the Independence struggle, that, more than denying reality as others see it, the key to gain momentum and to lead a process of change may sometimes be dependent on assuming a weakness, and making this a source of strength. Not denying the “fragile” classification, their proposal was to change the lens, and, by sharing challenges, stories and experiences, join up ”fragile states” in a not-so-fragile pressure group. They recognized that none of them would be likely to meet any of the Millennium Development Goals’ targets, but, yet, this time, they refused to allow others to lay the blame solely at their doorstep. This time, the international attribution of an especially fragile status would have to come with the recognition that the recipes for aid could no longer be the same. The first victory was the approval of the New Deal for engagement in fragile states approved at the 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan.

This very week, the diplomatic acknowledgement of the new role “Fragile States” must have on the “development” arena came with the appointment of Emília Pires, Minister of Finances of Timor-Leste and chair of the g7+, as one of the members of the High-level Panel of Eminent Persons advising the United Nations on the global development agenda post-2015.

With the elections milestone conquered and a new government sworn this Wednesday, 08 August 2012, all evidence points to the end of the UNMIT mission. Perhaps Timor-Leste is no longer “fragile”. And yet, the original challenges the country faced have not been overcome and it is currently undergoing a self-led “Fragility Assessment”.

An unexpected test to the new status of Timor-Leste came a week after the elections. The most voted party (CNRT) held a congress and opened it to be broadcast on national media. Some officials from the leading CNRT party made derogatory statements regarding the leading opposition party (FRETILIN) which led to rising tensions and some acts of violent protest by their supporters. The spectre of the violence scourging the 2007 elections hung heavy in the air for a few days. Recently arrived in Dili, I could see it in the faces of the people I talked to. I myself felt it. Within two weeks, though, a sense of tranquillity returned. Timor-Leste is different, something has really changed. Perhaps we can hope to say, Timor is starting to overcome its fragilities.

Now that “fragility” may no longer be a platform to overrule and disregard the ownership by “fragile country’s” people, despite the institutional weaknesses and eventual fragile legitimacy of their political leadership, of the efforts to overcome their challenges of “development”, who knows what new word will appear.

Bibliographic References:

Gunn, Geoffrey (1999), Timor Loro Sae: 500 years, Livros do Oriente

Ricardo Goulão Santos is q PhD Candidate within the Vulnerability and Poverty Reduction Team at IDS.

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