The recent departure of the last United Nations troops from East Timor made an important point to the world: Such forces can be pivotal in helping a wobbly country stand on its own two feet.
East Timor occupies half of a Southeast Asian island; the other half is part of Indonesia. It was colonized by Portugal in 1769, occupied by Japan during World War II, and invaded by Indonesia in 1975. The nation became independent in principle after a U.N. referendum in 1999, but the following years were shaky. Australia sent a peacekeeping unit, followed by a U.N. force that grew to 1,600 troops.
Fighting among Timorese factions in 2006 required vigorous action by the peacekeepers to control. There was an assassination attempt against East Timor’s elected president in 2008. Its problems are compounded by a weak economy.
Nonetheless, the United Nations, including the peacekeepers, labored long and hard to train East Timor’s police to keep order. They succeeded to the extent that Timorese and Australian leaders agreed the peacekeepers could leave.
No one would argue that East Timor could have reached the level of self-reliance it has achieved without the U.N.’s constructive role. The United States showed no interest in getting involved.
A look at East Timor’s bloody history, and by the infighting among its own people, argues that it could not have established nationhood without external help. Its success should encourage a U.N. role in other troubled states.