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New Zealand supporting democracy in Timor Leste

Rt Hon Winston Peters
Minister of Foreign Affairs

19 June 2006
Opinion piece

New Zealand supporting democracy in Timor Leste

Recent events in Timor Leste highlight the difficulties that young, fragile democracies can face, and the importance of the international community's support during their transition phase.

However flights of fancy penned by conspiracy theorists, including allegations that external forces have fuelled the recent unrest in Timor Leste to advance their own interests, are totally lacking in credibility.

On 24 May, the Timor Leste government asked New Zealand, Australia, Portugal and Malaysia for military help “in order to create conditions indispensable for the return of security, confidence and tranquillity”.

As a responsible international citizen and neighbour, New Zealand responded positively; quickly deploying a platoon, two aircraft, ground crew and a headquarters team. The remainder of the infantry company arrived in Dili on 31 May, with the United Nations Security Council welcoming the support shown by the governments concerned, and backing the deployments.

Yesterday the government announced the three-month deployment of New Zealand 25 police, who will work alongside our defence personnel to maintain law and order so that democratic and political processes can take place.

Contrary to the view that it is in our interests to see Timor Leste descend into chaos and bloodshed, New Zealand and Australia have a deep interest in preventing exactly that from happening.

We are committed to helping Timor Leste resolve the current crisis, to ensure that the Timorese people can live in a secure and increasingly prosperous nation rather than one racked by divisions and instability.

Our troops are there to keep the two factions apart and to prevent burning, looting and killing. We are not there to take sides in what is an internal dispute, which is why the intervention force has talked with rebel leaders rather than seeking to arrest and disarm them.

New Zealand has been significantly involved in assisting Timor Leste in its nation-building process over recent years. In 1999, at the peak of our involvement, we had 1100 troops there.

We have also provided constant assistance to Timor Leste through NZAID's development programme, which focuses on education, good governance and sustainable livelihoods. Our engagement has always been well received by the Timorese, and positively regarded by the international community.

The problems that Timor Leste faces today are those of a young democracy, whose transition is proving to be problematic because of the legacy of a long history of colonization and foreign rule.

Since independence, the fragile institutions of Timor Leste have been challenged by problems ranging from social differences, under-development and unemployment.

More recently, the failure of the Timorese government to address issues within its security forces led to the dismissal of one third of the military and the break up of the police force.

On the streets, riots and armed clashes between factions of the military, dissidents, ex-police joined by gangs of disaffected youth led to a general breakdown of law and order.

On the political level, the fragmented Timorese leadership and its weak democratic institutions were unable to manage the situation and requested international assistance.

However we recognize that it is the Timorese government that needs to accept its responsibilities, act constructively and constitutionally, and try to restore people’s confidence in the leadership.

It remains to be seen if the resignation yesterday of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri – the target of protests by large numbers of Timorese in recent weeks – will help restore calm and reduce the chances of further violence.

With the assistance of the international community, East Tmor will also need to focus on some important underlying societal problems such as poverty, unemployment, corruption and the restructuring of its security forces. Laying the groundwork for conducting peaceful and fair elections next year will also need to be a priority in the coming months.

New Zealand believes that an enhanced, long-term UN mission will be crucial to Timor Leste’s recovery, perhaps taking the lead in the areas of policing, justice and reconciliation.

It will nevertheless be fundamental that any future mission works with the Timorese people and government to build up capacity, and does not just step in to replace existing institutions, even if this may be necessary in some cases in the immediate term.


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