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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Asia > South East Asia > Timor-Leste: Everybody needs good neighbours

Timor-Leste: Everybody needs good neighbours

Jim Della-Giacoma, The Interpreter  |   13 Feb 2012

Early in 2010, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was sitting in Kabul with some diplomats who had served in Indonesia and Timor-Leste.

'Is it true', he asked, 'that Indonesia just walked away from East Timor after 1999?'

'Absolutely', they replied.

Karzai is a natural sceptic, but he saw something to be admired in the way Indonesia had turned its back on a conflict by which it had so long defined itself. 'This is not something well understood', he said.

Last month at the Australian Civil-Military Centre I was asked to remember what had been learnt from the first three international interventions in East Timor between 1999 and 2002, each often cited as a success story. First, UNAMET ran the referendum that certified the Timorese desire for independence. Then INTERFET enforced the peace and guaranteed the outcome of the vote would be respected. Finally, UNTAET brought the country to independence.

In 1999, UNAMET, while nominally a UN mission, was an extension of Canberra's foreign policy with the whole of government behind it. Prime Minister Howard rolled up his sleeves and negotiated with President Habibie all sorts of details, including the number of UN civilian police supervising the ballot and the establishment of an Australian consulate in Dili. Foreign Minister Downer proclaimed there should be no logistical reasons for delaying the ballot. If the UN needed something, it would be provided.

Proximity gave Australia both motive and means to back this and subsequent missions. It would not have and could not have done the same for either Sri Lanka or Singapore.

As UNAMET proceeded, the ADF quietly planned for the day when things did go wrong and UN personnel and their families, as well as prominent citizens such as Nobel laureate Bishop Belo, needed sanctuary. This evacuation rolled into INTERFET, which saw an unprecedented mobilisation of Australian diplomatic, military, and financial muscle in support of a peace enforcement operation. About A$740 million later, Australia handed responsibility for security to UNTAET in early 2000.

Most contemporaneous lessons learnt focused on UNTAET's technocratic failings. If you were in it, as I was, you knew it was an ad hoc adventure and a bit chaotic. The experts concluded the UN was unequipped for such a mammoth task and needed to be reformed to meet future challenges. Yet while UNTAET was flawed, it did hand over a functioning government for the Timorese to run on 20 May 2002.

One key factor in the success of these missions is often neglected — the absence of external spoilers. This is what President Karzai saw too.

Timor-Leste was a lucky country that came of age just as Indonesia democratised and its military was leaving the national stage. The post-Soeharto civilian political leadership quickly turned its back on the former province and got on with the business of internal reform. It repealed the 1976 integration law in October 1999 and left the territory to the UN. Then Mines and Oil Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono renounced Indonesia's claim on Timor's oil, thereby making the new republic economically viable.

By the time the UN was ready to give the country back to the Timorese in May 2002, Indonesia had been through three presidents. Megawati Soekarnoputri, the one least supportive of East Timor's plight, magnanimously showed up for the party.

But, Mr Karzai, Indonesia did not just walk away from Timor, it did something much more extraordinary: it enthusiastically embraced the idea of an independent Timor-Leste.

Such diplomatic gymnastics still startle the old hands every time one of the Indonesian veterans of 1999 blogs, tweets, or posts pictures of new found Timorese friend who was once their adversary. Despite the odd hiccup (the two countries still cannot agree on a land or maritime border), the relationship is increasingly broad and mutually profitable.

After UNAMET was over, UN officials wrote to Australian counterparts to tell them we could not have performed the mission without them. Indonesia never received such thank-you letters, as its turn-around from belligerent party to good neighbour took some years. Also, its misbehaviour and scorched earth policy in 1999 has never been forgotten and neither have the crimes against humanity that took place on Jakarta's watch, which are still to be properly accounted for.

But how did a friendship blossom amid such bitter memories? Most importantly, the Timorese were ready to trade justice for peace. The realpolitik moment was the final report of the imperfect 2005-2008 Commission of Truth and Friendship (CTF). In turn for not pursuing crimes against humanity against Indonesian perpetrators, Timor-Leste, through the CTF, gained a sense of equality with its former coloniser; Indonesia lost the pebble in its shoe as it aspired to fill the boots of a being a regional power.

But such morally ambiguous deals do not negate the strategic reality that is clear now, a decade after independence; you really do need good neighbours to make a complex peace operation work. In the case of Timor-Leste, it took one with deep pockets and can-do spirit to the south as well as another to the west ready to leave quietly, do nothing and then overcome its enormous loss of face to want to try again to be best friends with the new nation over its back fence.

Jim Della-Giacoma is the South East Asia Project Director for the International Crisis Group

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