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Approaching by sea, from a distance, East Timor's capital, Dili, looks like a peaceful Mediterranean village, its whitewashed buildings clustered against the beautiful green coastal mountains. Closer to shore one begins to pick out the Second World War bunkers, the rusting hulks of Indonesian landing craft, as well as the burned shells of warehouses looted recently by mobs unchecked by a crippled government. Last week, in response to this collapse in law and order, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked the UN Security Council to send a peacekeeping mission back to East Timor.

Until just a few weeks ago, East Timor was seen as a great success, proof that the blue helmets can restore peace and rebuild nations. Unfortunately for the Timorese, the centre could not hold and things fell apart.

East Timor is only 15,000 square kilometres, not much larger than Cape Breton, with a population of less than a million people. In spite of its small size, it has 17 officially recognized languages and dozens of dialects. Almost every valley is racially distinct, combining the descendents of Melanesians, Malays, Portuguese, and even Australian aboriginals. After being fitfully colonized by Portugal in the early 1700s, Timor remained a patchwork of warring chiefdoms well into the 20th century and remains almost completely undeveloped. Independence was declared in 1975 following the sudden departure of the Portuguese colonial administrators. Nine days later, Indonesia invaded. The subsequent 20-year occupation was brutal, resulting in the death of up to a third of the population.

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In 1998, after the collapse of the Suharto dictatorship, Indonesia acquiesced to international demands for an UN-supervised referendum on Timor independence. Voters overwhelmingly chose freedom, but it was a bitter victory as the withdrawing Indonesian army and its militias torched every major town and village. Australian-led forces restored calm, permitting the UN to establish a transitional government culminating in long-awaited independence on May 20, 2002. The international response to help the Timorese was swift, but inadequate in many ways. The United Nations had little experience in building and running a nation and its response was often severely disjointed with human rights and gender equity taking precedence over rebuilding homes and schools. Worse, donors spent more than a billion dollars, but almost none of it actually touched the ground. A recent study on the economic impact of peacekeeping missions determined that only five per cent was actually spent in the Timorese economy.

The Timorese were enrolled in a crash course on self-governance. The UN established a training college for civil servants, but the overwhelming majority were expected to learn through osmosis -- the theory being, if you sit someone next to a tax clerk for six months they will absorb everything there is to know about being a tax clerk, even if they do not speak the same language, which was generally the case.

Above all, it was the international community's short attention span that doomed East Timor to slip back into chaos. The donors were eager to leave, pushing the UN to hold elections as quickly as possible so they could declare victory and get out. Canada was among those running for the exit. Almost all of the Canadian troops in Operation Toucan were gone only six months after they arrived. In the days immediately following independence in 2002, the airport was jammed with departing aid workers, diplomats, and UN officials. The Timorese were suddenly left to their own devices.

Not surprisingly, the new Timorese government, weakened by internal divisions and largely untrained for the task it faced, fell into disarray.

The parallels with Afghanistan are striking. There, too, the international community has come to the aid of a country deeply split by internal divisions and a long history of war. And yet, there are already loud calls from Canadian politicians to withdraw our troops lest we wander into a quagmire. The imminent return of the UN to East Timor shows us that nation-building is, by definition, a quagmire. Peace, order and good government cannot be built in a single fiscal year, or even several. Our leaders, across the political spectrum, insist we are a nation of peacekeepers. This was once undeniable. In recent years, however, our ability or willingness to contribute and persevere has flagged.

Scott Gilmore served in East Timor with the UN and the Canadian Foreign Service and is now the executive director of Peace Dividend Trust, a non-profit organization that works with the UN to make peacekeeping more effective.

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