20 July, 2024


East-Timor Today & The United Nations’ Contribution 

By Dushanthi Silva

In the world today, there is a prominent trend to promote small nations as strong and powerful countries within the world’s global agenda. According to that trend, we can identify East-Timor (now Timor-Leste) as one of the robust nations in the international scene. This is also the intention of the country, and the present President Jose Ramos-Horta who in fact visited Sri Lanka in 1996 and met with some of the progressive political leaders. He also conducted human rights training for several young social activists and leaders.

Jose Ramos-Horta, President of Timor-Leste

Timor-Leste is a Southeast Asian country which was brutally invaded and ruled by Indonesia for more than 20 years. Before the Indonesian invasion, Timor-Leste was colonized by Portuguese formally since 1702, but their first presence was in 1515.

When Ramos-Horta was in Colombo in 1996, at a general speech, he humorously said, ‘In 1505, Portuguese came to your country and as you failed to stop them, they came to our country after ten years!” Portuguese competitor in Timor was Dutch who mainly colonized Indonesia. After several skirmishes, they came to a settlement for the Dutch to control the West Timor and the Portuguese to control the East-Timor.

Timor is an island closer to Australia. Even today the relations between Timor-Leste and Australia are very close of course with some frictions. Timor-Leste (East Timor) has a very rich history, and it was earlier known as the city full of fragrant sandalwood. Timor was historically divided into two parts, East and West, and because of this history and colonial influences people have become different with their own cultural and other characteristics. The West-Timor was mostly a non-political region, and it remains a part of the Indonesian Province of Nusa Tenggara.

UN Involvement in East-Timor

After a long period of occupation, in 1975 the Portuguese decided to leave East-Timor. There were two main reasons for the decision to leave. In 1970s the remaining Western colonialism was failing in Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia etc.). Secondly, in Portugal there was a political revolution called Carnation Revolution in 1974. The new regime did not want to keep colonies. Indonesia was decolonized in 1945 even before Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948. One purpose of the formation of the United Nations (UN) in 1945 was also to encourage and support decolonization. Building peace was another major objective. However, decolonized Indonesia wanted to colonize East-Timor. This was an unfortunate paradox. As a result, there was a civil war and rebellion against Indonesian rule led by Xanana Gusmao in Est-Timor.

There were strong campaigns in the UN forums to oppose Indonesian rule in East-Timor. These were led by Jose Ramos-Horta with the support of international human rights organizations. As a result of these campaigns and the UN positions, Indonesia finally decided to leave the country, but by that time the country was politically, economically and socially devastated. Even when the Indonesian army was leaving, they killed innocent people and destroyed buildings and property. This is why the direct intervention and involvement of the UN was necessary.         

The United Nations intervened in East-Timor as a transitional government. This was with the agreement of the Eat-Timor’s liberation leaders. At the time the main need of the country was the establishment of their sovereignty and a workable government. The United Nations was involved as the ‘United Nations Transitional Administration in East-Timor (UNTAET).’ During that period the United Nations acted as a fully legal government in East-Timor. Both constitutional and legislative powers were under the hand of UNTAET. UN delegator to East Timor, Sergio Vieira de Mello, was the head of the transitional government appointed by the United Nations. He was a compassionate and efficient person. The United Nations transitional government in East Timor was highly admired among the experienced diplomats and democratic countries in the UN.

In the process of United Nations post-war peace keeping and post-war nation building processes there were successes and failure and Est-Timor was one of the great successes. At that time, The Time magazine described the above situation as follows: “UN is the legally autocratic bearer of East-Timor. The UN delegator to East-Timor ‘Sergio Vieira de Mello’ had full authority to introduce new laws and regulations regarding the path of freedom of East-Timor with the supervision of the United Nations General Assembly. In the process of implementation, East Timorese leaders Mr. Xanana Gusmao and Mr. Jose Manuel Ramos Horta acted as leaders.” After the independence, the first president of East Timor was Xanana Gusmao who was appreciated by all over the world regarding his presidency. Joes Ramos Horta became the new president in East Timor at present. He too is one of the most admired presidents in the world.

In 1999, the UN did conduct a referendum to decide whether the people of East-Timor clearly wanted a separation from Indonesia and wanted full independence. This was a condition from the President of Indonesia. The people overwhelmingly said ‘yes’ (78.5 percent) and this event strengthened their determination for independence.  

At the end, East Timorese people gained their right of self-determinations on 20th of May 2002. At the time, the United Nations Organization was the biggest strength that stood by them. After the 20th of May 2002, the United Nations legally handed over the governing power of East-Timor to their leaders. While Xanana Gusmao became the first President of East Timor, Jose Ramos-Horta became the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste. Under the honors of the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, East-Timor became 192-member country in the United Nations.

Achievements after Independence     

As a Southeast Asian country, Timor-Leste is ranked as the freest country in the region. The country’s path to freedom and independence, however, was not easy. After independence in 2002, they formally proclaimed a democratic government. The President Joes Ramos-Horta and Minister of Foreign Affairs Xanana Gusmao were attacked by some rebel soldiers in 2008. Since then, the security of the country has been stable.

The Timor-Leste government has faced many other difficulties after independence throughout the process of nation building. But the excellent leadership and confident relationship between the government and the people has carried their country onto a peaceful path. East Timorese do not hesitate to trust their government. Trusting the government is the main point in their success.  The country has been able to experience free and fair elections for more than twenty years without violating rules and regulations. The country has experienced a good political agenda within a peaceful environment. In world politics, most of the countries started clashes between ruling government and different kind of groups within their own territories. That is the most tragic situation experienced in other countries. In Timor-Leste people are very close to their elected government and their implementation of policies.

Timor-Leste is actively involved in the international arena and is trying to keep up their leadership within the global community. As an example, we can show that the international conference titled, “International Dialog on Peace Building and State Building” was held in the Timor-Leste capital in Dili in 2010 and group G-7 Secretariat has been in Dili since then. Timor-Leste has also joined the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) and the WTO (World Trade Organization) and they have shown stronger co-operation with the international community.

The above does not mean that Timor-Leste is free from problems and challenges even at present. Agriculture is still the main livelihood of 70% of the population. Despite these challenges Timor-Leste has successfully created peace and stability within the country. The country hasn’t suffered protracted violence or instability. At present, the Timor-Leste has to overcome some issues related to insufficient government revenue and need to invest more on industries, agriculture and exports. Due to their regional and global relations with other nations, it’s not difficult to manage problems arising in them.

In summary, after 500 years of Portuguese colonial rule and 24 years of Indonesian brutal occupation, Timor-Leste gained their independence in 2002. The UN’s involvement was extremely helpful. During the last two decades, the country was managed by extremely committed leaders based on the trust of the people. So, we can surely say that Timor-Leste’s future is in successful hands because they could rise strongly with unity without any violence. As a Southeast Asian nation Timor-Leste is the best example for achieving the right of self-determination in a peaceful way in the global political arena. The contribution of the United Nations should be unequivocally appreciated.

*Dushanthi Silva is a special degree holder from the University of Colombo in International Relations. 

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