UN ends its East Timor peacekeeping mission after 13 years

The UN ends its mission as Asia's youngest nation faces a future fraught with challenges

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2013, 6:22am


The UN ended its peacekeeping mission in East Timor yesterday after 13 years in Asia's youngest nation following a bloody transition to independence - leaving behind a country facing the task of tackling rampant poverty.

UN forces first entered the territory around the vote for independence from Indonesia in 1999 that gave way to political unrest and bloodshed. Around 1,500 peacekeepers had been based there since.

The final batch of troops and logistics staff left yesterday morning as the mission prepared to take down its flag, departing from a country struggling with malnutrition and maternal mortality rates that are among the worst in the world.

Yet calm has been restored to the nation of 1.1 million, and leaders said they were excited about the new direction despite the many problems that lay ahead for the fragile democracy.

"In the end we have to say goodbye to the UN with ... high appreciation for what they have been doing in Timor-Leste," Deputy Prime Minister Fernando Araujo said at end-of-year festivities outside the government palace on Sunday night.

He said East Timor would first focus on improving schools, hospitals and human resources in the public sector.

"But we're optimistic that in 10 years, coming together with many friends around the world including UN agencies for development, we can overcome these challenges," he said, as a jovial Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao entertained with hundreds of children.

The streets in the capital, Dili, once dominated by UN four-wheel drives, have returned to a sleepy pace with rickety yellow taxis plying the streets for a US$2 flat-rate fare.

"I usually drive my taxi until midnight. I'm not scared any more because there hasn't been any conflict, like there was years ago," Angelo Ulan, 25, said, welcoming the UN's departure. "Now we must unite to achieve prosperity and develop our country. I hope our leaders are united."

The UN has expressed faith in the national police force, which resumed responsibility for security in October, though observers show concern for the long term.

International Crisis Group analyst Cillian Nolan said the government's method of paying cash handouts to factions to ensure peace and making stern, but empty threats had undermined real long-term police reform.

Gusmao in November was filmed by a reporter warning: "Once the UN are gone ... if you continue to hurl [stones] at one another, I will arrest you and not give you any food."

In a recent blog post, Nolan described these tactics as "trickery", saying: "The trick will not last forever. And then what?

"What we'll probably see after the UN withdrawal is an unorthodox approach to policing.

"We'll likely see some strong-arm tactics to ensure public order, and they'll be looking for non-policing ways to strengthen what is still a relatively weak police force."

But UN mission chief Finn Reske-Nielsen expressed confidence in the future. "Timor Leste has now reached a stage in its development, politically and developmentally, where it can in fact stand on its own feet."

A UN security mission was first established to help the country's barely existing state and security institutions. That mission ended in 2005. But the violence and political turmoil in 2006 that left at least 37 people dead led to a new peacekeeping presence.

Despite facing new challenges, East Timor will celebrate the new year with several notches on its belt from 2012: it marked a decade of formal independence and held largely peaceful elections, voting in a new president and parliament.