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UN Peacekeepers to Keep their Date and Withdraw after East Timor Presidential Elections in 2012

Monday, August 29th, 2011
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The United Nations will finally wind up its peacekeeping services in East Timor in 2012, and all preparations to keep within this deadline are in full swing. It was almost six years ago that the East Timor government enlisted the United Nations peacekeeping efforts in 2006, following unprecedented civil riots and factional fighting that was taking one of the youngest nations in the world to the brink of internal strife and civil war.

United Nations is involved, and United Nations security forces have been protecting the nation because of long-standing political and historical events. To understand the significance of the UN security forces finally handing over the baton to East Timor, one needs to know how the current scenario came about and how the coming date with East Timor presidential elections in 2012 is so vital to this emerging nation.

The Tumultuous History of East Timor

The Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, located in Southeast Asia, is a nation with a tumultuous political history. It consists of the eastern part of the island of Timor and the islands of Atauro and Jaco. Declaring itself free from Portugese colonial powers in 1975, East Timor soon found itself invaded by Indonesia and until 1999 remained a province of Indonesia for 24 years. A UN-sponsored referendum led to a resounding vote for the young nation's independence in 1999.

However, anti-independence Timorese militia have since slain more than 1,400 Timorese and forced 300,000 individuals into refugee status in West Timor. The International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) ended the violence, and under UN administration, it has been an independent state since 2002.

East Timor after Independence

The UNTAET, or the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNAET), was formed in 1999, and its own military command was transferred to it in 2000. Later in 2001, elections for a constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution were held, and in May 2002, Xanana Gusmao was elected President and Mari Alkatiri as Prime Minister. However, peace and calm have continued to elude the young nation.

Peace eludes East Timor even after Independence

Despite being recognised by the international community and being made a member of the UN in September 2002, unrest has been the norm there ever since. Student protests continued, with rioters in December of 2002 carrying an injured student to the National Parliament Building. This act was attributed to foreign influence as the violence continued.

Strained Relations with Australia

Relations with Australia became strained as maritime boundaries between the two countries were disputed. The island of Timor Gap, with its rich reserves of petrol products and natural gas fields, is the island most under contention, as both countries try to establish their ownership over these resource fields.

Even as the new Timor government was handling foreign repartee, the student unrest continued unabated until clashes between government forces and civilians reached a crescendo in 2006. This was East Timor's first crisis after independence.

Another Major Crisis in May 2006

The legacies of political management of crisis and poor structuring of the East Timor military could not sustain the development of the island nation.

The clash between the government and the civilians, which started as government action against military recruits who had abandoned their barracks, snowballed into a complete crisis. The segregation of the police and military forces such as those with Indonesian training and local Falintil troops redefined the fate of the nation in 2006. Some believe this infighting could also be the outcome of unfair distribution of oil funds as well as the disorganization of the Timorese army and its police forces.

The Prime Minister choose to handle the crisis with an iron hand and accused the detractors of initiating a coup. He then sought assistance from across the world to help him handle the uprising, resulting in military help from Portugal, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Australia. The crisis ended with 23 deaths.

The nation later called for the Prime Minister's resignation, and he resigned in June of 2006. In the following year's presidential elections, Jose Ramos-Horta was elected President while Gusmao was elected Prime Minister in April 2007.

Role of United Nations Missions

The continuous unrest had led to a substantial presence of the United Nations security forces at various stages when East Timor sought its independence from Indonesia. During the transition of power from the Indonesian format to East Timor sovereignty, the United Nations mission in East Timor had been present from the start of the crisis in June, to October of 1999.

It is important to mention here that the United Nations can send its security forces as missions which need to be constituted from member nation military and police personnel.

Following UNAMET was the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor from October 1999 to May 2002 for the new constituent government to come into power. This was followed by the United Nations Mission of Support to East Timor (UNMISET) from May 2002-2005 to help the democratically elected political leaders to maintain peace and order in the country.

From May 2005 to August 2006, the United Nations Office in Timor Leste, or UNOTIL, was formed, and the overall structure of military and police administration in the country was put in place.

Then, in August 2006, the present mission, called the United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste, or UNMIT, has continued to play a role in East Timor's development.

However, the Political Director of the United Nations Mission in East Timor, Gary Gray, has announced that by 2012, the peacekeeping forces shall vacate the island, following the 2012 presidential elections.

The Winding Up of the UNMIT

"Things have stabilized basically since the 2006 problems and we're pretty confident that's going to continue through the elections beginning early next year," Gray said.

Leading up to the withdrawal of the peacekeeping troops in March 2011, operational control was handed over to the local police and only a thousand or so UN police force now remain.

The reasons for East Timor's growing stability are primarily due to the presence of huge offshore oil and natural gas reserves. The nation's current double digit growth is also due to these cash-rich natural resources. Educational focus and a decrease in poverty are also viewed as contributing factors to the growth of the nation.

Better relations with Indonesia and the resolving of pre-independence struggle atrocities through grievances with the joint Truth and Friendship commission have helped a long way in establishing peace in the region.

Though there is still friction amongst the powers that be with regard to compensating victims of previous conflicts, these are logistics which will hopefully be resolved with the passage of time. Gary Gray predicts that the high rates of unemployment and other legacies of the long-standing underlying tensions would not take long to resurface, and that they need to be handled with care and prudence.

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