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East Timor Hailed a UN Success

Published: 12-31-12

Reprinted from Sky News, updated: 09:39, Monday December 31, 2012

Troops sent by Australia and New Zealand have all gone home and only a handful of United Nations police will be left when the UN flag comes down in East Timor's capital of Dili after six years.

'As of Monday, the liquidation team will be there. They are the ones who are unscrewing all the lightbulbs,' said Ameerah Haq, UN under-secretary general and former head of the UN mission in East Timor.

The UN played a key role in the birth of East Timor, officially known as Timor Leste. It organised the 1999 referendum that ended 24 years of Indonesian occupation in which an estimated 183,000 people died through conflict, starvation or disease.

It helped run East Timor until 2002 when an independent government took over.

For many Timorese leaders it was a national humiliation to seek UN help in 2006 when soldiers sacked from the army launched a mutiny which sparked factional violence that left dozens dead and 150,000 people in makeshift camps.

'You don't want to say that a country learned by crisis,' said Haq, but in this case there was 'good benefit' from the Timorese seeing in a few days the burning, looting and destruction threatening all they had built in the past seven years.

'They just saw it collapse before their eyes and it was like: we did this to ourselves,' she told AFP.

'It was a watershed moment in their experience.'

The UN was able to make an impact because it was the East Timorese government which asked for help and working in a country the size of Timor was not like bringing peace to Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

'In Timor, everything happened as it should,' Ms Haq said. 'We had great access to the leadership, we had complete freedom of movement within the country.'

The country has now had two relatively calm presidential elections, the 3000-strong police force has been retrained district by district, and the judiciary reformed.

Ms Haq said she had seen political tensions boil up again. There were times when she would tell political leaders to 'tone down the rhetoric'.

'They would always tell me 'we all struggled together, we all saw what happened in 2006',' she said.

'They always assured me they would always stop short of the trigger. I learned to have confidence in that.'

The big powers are now taking a more intense look at East Timor, which has significant oil and gas reserves even though it remains one of the most impoverished countries.

As a result US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, visited in September and China built the presidential palace and military headquarters.

Brazil is also a key source of aid while Cuba has trained hundreds of Timorese doctors.

Ms Haq said East Timor knows that it must now concentrate on lifting the half of the 1.1 million population living below the poverty line.