The near-fatal shooting of East Timor President José Ramos-Horta on Feb. 11 shocked average East Timorese as well as the foreign governments that midwifed the birth of the new nation. Ramos-Horta needed eight liters of blood to stabilize his condition before being airlifted to a hospital in Darwin, Australia, where he is in serious, but stable, condition.
But the shootout in the capital Dili should not have been such a surprise. When most multinational peacekeepers flew out of Dili in the years after East Timor's formal independence in 2002, the world considered the country a victory of U.N. nation-building. The U.N. chief in East Timor, Sergio Vieira de Mello, was asked to duplicate his work as special envoy for Iraq (he was later tragically killed in Baghdad), and East Timor's former President Xanana Gusmão (now Prime Minister) declared that his country could be a model for other young, developing countries. Yet the billions poured into East Timor, and the thousands of aid workers who descended on tiny Dili, failed to solve the fledgling nation's critical problems. And when the world finally left, those fissures exploded.
Since independence, East Timor has lurched from crisis to crisis. It has been plagued by grinding poverty and constant, often violent, political infighting. Many of the country's leaders, in exile in Portugal or Mozambique during Indonesia's occupation, have aggravated the situation by failing to connect with the majority of their compatriots. Senior government officials live lives of relative luxury, in stark contrast to the lot of the vast majority of East Timorese. (Because Dili is a small town, it's not uncommon to see such officials dining in trendy Portuguese cafés situated near the poor and homeless squatting in tents.) Portuguese is the official language of the government, which means that most East Timorese, who speak Indonesian or the local language Tetum, cannot understand, or participate in, political discourse. The authorities have not launched effective job programs to retrain former guerrillas who fought Indonesia; for example, few ex-insurgents have been hired for the police force. Resentment among onetime fighters runs deep. On several occasions, only personal pleas to ex-guerillas from Gusmão, a former rebel leader, prevented violence from erupting.
Yet those early warnings, including riots across Dili in 2002, did not convince foreign peacekeepers desperate to proclaim success and not to appear as occupiers to stay longer. By 2005, most Australian soldiers went home, even though East Timor's leaders, including Ramos-Horta, had begged them not to leave too quickly. By 2006, the cracks in East Timorese society were impossible to miss. I visited the country that year and as I drove its length, passing pristine white beaches, lonely scuba divers and dilapidated Portuguese mansions, I met intensely angry former guerrilla fighters, some of whom had been sacked from the army. They had armed themselves with sticks and jungle slingshots and were heading for Dili to demand money, jobs and equal treatment for all East Timorese.
In a country where many people suffered horrifically under Indonesian rule, leaving scarred psyches, minor conflicts can easily escalate into major battles. In the first half of 2006, gangs of former guerrillas fought with one another and the authorities across Dili. The conflict spiraled, leaving entire areas of the city burned to the ground, and tens of thousands of East Timorese in temporary shelters.
After taking power in last year's presidential election, Ramos-Horta laid plans to address East Timor's many problems. He vowed to focus on reconciliation after the 2006 riots, and promised to remake the security forces to make them representative of East Timorese from both the east and west ends of the country an acrimonious ethnic divide. But rogue militias are still around, and the police are still drawn mainly from just the west side. Moreover, unemployment is rising ever higher, the judiciary remains weak, and thousands of refugees who fled past fighting continue to languish in makeshift camps nationwide a tinderbox waiting to explode.
Now that the Australians have returned to provide temporary stability, Ramos-Horta, when he recovers, and Gusmão must move quickly and simultaneously on several fronts. They can draw on the money that will flow in from East Timor's offshore oil reserves to create a New Deal kind of job corps for former fighters and young gang members. They should implement an aggressive demobilization program. They should rapidly shore up East Timor's institutions by reducing the use of Portuguese and recruiting international judges and lawyers for the courts. Only then can there be real peace. And only then will East Timor be truly independent.