East Timor: when nation-building destroys

The Pacific state’s slide into turmoil exposes the hollowness of the ‘independence’ granted to it by the UN.

Philip Cunliffe

Topics Politics

On 14 June 2006, United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan announced that UN peacekeepers had to return to East Timor, only a year after they were withdrawn. Nearly 2,000 Australian troops – more than the Australian force in Iraq – are already patrolling the streets of the capital Dili (1). They were called in to help restore order after the country began to spiral into strife earlier this year, following the sacking of striking soldiers.

By all accounts, the situation is grave. Over 100,000 people have fled Dili and scores have been killed in the unrest. Disturbing as it is, the violence alone cannot account for the level of attention that it has attracted, when compared with the situation in Iraq or Sudan. So what is it about this tiny Pacific state that makes it so important?

East Timor is one of the world’s newest states, having become independent on 20 May 2002. But what made this ‘independence’ different is that it was granted by the UN. From October 1999 to 2002, East Timor was ruled by a UN governor-general, Sergio Vieira de Mello (later killed in Iraq), as part of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor. UNTAET was established after immense Western pressure on Indonesia to hold a referendum on East Timorese independence in August 1999.

UNTAET was widely hailed as an example of successful nation-building, as indicated by the fact that it was Vieira de Mello who was despatched to represent the UN in Baghdad. In addition, the arrival of an Australian-led intervention force in East Timor in 1999 was seen by many as a timely intervention to defend the Timorese from the wrath of retreating Indonesian forces.

East Timor was held up as a shining example of successful humanitarian intervention, in contrast to the perceived failure to react to the conflicts of the early and mid-1990s (notably Rwanda and Bosnia). ‘Never before has the world united with such firm resolve to help one small nation establish itself’, Kofi Annan proclaimed on the day the UN granted East Timor its independence. Only weeks before the conflict erupted earlier this year, World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz described the country as a ‘vibrant democracy’ (2).

The BBC’s Jonathan Head retrospectively admits the extent to which compassion for the Timorese infected the media coverage back in 1999: ‘Journalists are supposed to stay detached from their stories but, of course, that is a myth. Back in 1999 every journalist was gunning for [East Timor] during its heroic bid for independence. East Timor was unusual for a “country in crisis” story because of the extraordinary levels of sympathy it aroused … it was a story which had a happy ending.’ (3) With the current TV pictures from Dili reminiscent of 1999, but with no Indonesians to revile, it seems that the foreign correspondents’ and international dignitaries’ picture-postcard ‘happy ending’ has gone horribly wrong.

Many commentators have claimed that the incompetence and divisiveness of the Timorese leadership are responsible for the crisis (4). In truth, the crisis exposes the failure of UN nation-building, and the emptiness of the independence that it purported to offer.

Jarat Chopra, head of district administration in the UNTAET operation until 2000, wrote: ‘The organisational and juridical status of the UN in East Timor is comparable with that of a pre-constitutional monarch in a sovereign kingdom.’ (5) Even after independence, the UN presence continued in the country ‘to provide assistance to core administrative structures critical to the viability and political stability of East Timor’ (6). The overweening power wielded by UN viceroy Vieira de Mello effectively stifled Timorese self-determination. In 2000, one of the key figures of the Timorese anti-Indonesian resistance, Xanana Gusmão, denounced the UN for building a ‘banana republic’ in Timor and for blaming Timorese leaders for problems that were entirely out of their control. Even as it wielded supreme power over Timor, UNTAET criticised the Timorese leadership for its authoritarianism (7).

Today, many analysts point to Timor’s grinding poverty as a cause of the current violence. But East Timor’s dependence on the international community is more than economic; it is political. The UN nation-building project in the country cultivated a leadership whose authority and power derived from their relationship with the international community more than it did from their own people. The end result is the bizarre spectacle of former guerrilla leaders like Timorese President Gusmão, who resisted the Indonesian army for decades, now pleading for foreign troops and the UN to re-occupy the country he fought so long to free (8).

East Timor now joins the growing list of societies wrecked by nation-building throughout the world: Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Haiti, Bosnia. The tragedy of East Timor brutally illustrates the futility of relying on external forces to win self-determination on one’s behalf.

Philip Cunliffe is co-convenor of the Sovereignty And Its Discontents working group. Email him at

(1) BBC News, ‘Australia beefs up E Timor force’, 28 May 2006

(2) John Aglionby, ‘Back to square one’, Guardian, 6 June 2006

(3) Jonathan Head, ‘No happy ending for East Timor’, BBC News, 3 June 2006

(4) Linda Polman, ‘Trappings of State’, Guardian, 31 May 2006

(5) Jarat Chopra, ‘The UN’s kingdom of East Timor’, Survival 42:3, 2000, p.29

(6) See the UNTAET homepage

(7) See pages 140-142 in Simon Chesterman, You, The People: The United Nations, Transitional Administration, and State-Building (Oxford University Press, 2004)

(8) BBC News, ‘Gusmao “shaken” by E Timor unrest’, 14 June 2006

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Topics Politics


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