Interesting article but dose’nt go into the outside influences on Timor Leste
and does “at-risk” mean risk to western interests in oil and gas in the Timor Sea.
By Jamie Buis
Personal connections can create a tremendous amount of context and
connection with a sensitive political or social issue. A close
personal connection through a friend or family member allows for a
depth and breadth of study of an issue, an understanding that not be
possible without such an intimate association.
It is through my relationship with my father, that the failed state
of East Timor first entered my consciousness. It was the late summer
of 2003 and I was just getting settled into my first year of studies
at Mount Allison University. Simultaneously, three quarters of the
way around the world, my father, Staff Sergeant John Buis, was also
getting accustomed to new surroundings. His, however, were a great
deal more adverse than a dormitory in rural New Brunswick.
My relationship with East Timor grew out of the experiences my father
shared with me and would provide the inspiration for my interest in
Timor’s past and more importantly its future. As a member of the
Royal Canadian Mounted Police, he had volunteered to be part of a
United Nations assistance mission to the recently created country of
East Timor. He was beginning a nine-month mission where he would
participate in the training and consequently the supervision and
monitoring of the police force located within the fledgling nation.
In Canada the plight of the Timorese is barely audible and only
within the past two or three years, with the 2006 uprising bringing
media attention back to the island, has there been much North
American involvement. The more I read and the more I conversed with
my father, the more I began to question the treatment of the Timorese
people. I questioned the motivation of those involved in making
decisions that would impact the Timorese people and most importantly,
I questioned how the answers to those questions could be used to
create a solution in which the future and path of the country could
be controlled by those it directly affected.
East Timor is a country that is unassuming in its nature, geography,
and location; these factors are those that assured that the plight of
the Timorese people would be little noticed by the outside world. The
country comprises the eastern half of an island, which is roughly the
size of the Netherlands or Belgium and it has a population of roughly
one million people. It is located between Australia and Indonesia and
is surrounded by the Timor Sea to the south and the Flores Sea to the
north and has a rocky, mountainous center surrounded by coastal plains.
Tetum and Portuguese are the most commonly spoken languages. Due to
its island geography (which is relatively isolated), the majority of
the Timorese share a common ethnic heritage, one that is separate
from most of the Indonesian people north of Timor.
The majority of the population is rural and pre-industrial, employed
in subsistence farming by a largely illiterate population. Production
and manufacturing make up a very limited amount of the economic
activity in the country.
For many, the Timorese lifestyle, one that is based upon ideas of
survival and tribal dynamics, has not changed drastically since the
1600s. Following more than 400 years of Portuguese rule, Indonesia
brutally occupied the Eastern portion of Timor and set in motion a
destructive series of violent and oppressive events that would come
to dominate Timorese life. Survival and subsistence, violence and
oppression became constant in lives of the Timorese.
Indonesian consolidation was brutal and swift. Westerners either left
en mass or were evicted. Indonesian troops were responsible for the
death of documentary team from Australia that was seeking to expose
the Indonesian invasion.
The systematic destruction of Timorese culture soon followed and
before long the word genocide was used to describe the situation. It
has been estimated that as many as 250,000 Timorese were slaughtered
following an illegal and undue invasion between 1975 and 1999.
A media blackout was imposed and foreign journalists and press were
restricted from travelling to the island. Without the prying eyes of
the world, Indonesia established a brutal regime where the Portuguese
language was banned, Catholic worship was limited, and ethnically
biased governmental policy was enacted. Those peoples displaced by
the invasion or rendered homeless by Indonesian land seizures became
refugees and thousands starved through much of the 1970s and 1980s.
Ethnic population controlled was systematically carried out; women
were unknowingly or forced to take overdoses of birth control
medication and concentration camps of undesirable members of the
population were created. These devastating occurrences had
destructive effect upon the psyche of individuals and the nation of
While independence was gained on May 20, 2002, in order to control
their own destiny, in order to gain the trust of foreign investors
and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), in essence in order to
show that the East Timorese could take care of their own affairs, law
and order had to be maintained. In essence, a civil society where a
basic level of human rights and human safety could be assured had to
be carried out.
Violence and unrest has plagued the Timorese since then, mostly as a
result of decades of deep mistrust of authority by citizens. This
distrust and suspicion of the military and police have had
destructive consequences for the establishment of law, order, and
human security in the developing nation.
Both Superintendent John White and my father, Staff Sergeant John
Buis echoed this sentiment to me in separate interviews. Both have
intimate experiences in Timor, serving with the UN Police observers
unit stationed there. Both RCMP officers undeniably espoused that
making a positive change within the lives of individuals and
affecting a positive impact upon an area where suffering and chaos
had been the status quo is something that should be sought at every
While problematic and difficult to alter in the short term, at-risk
states such as East Timor can be repaired to the point where ideas of
law, order, and basic human rights can be assured to its citizens.
Countries with strong and entrenched ideas of how to maintain safe
and empowered citizens must somehow find the political and economic
will to support the generational paradigm change within states such
as East Timor so they can become the functioning and effective
democratic state that their leaders envision.
The individual impact of a single peacekeeper or foreign aid worker
or police observer is the basis of what makes the idea of foreign
involvement so important. If, on a personal level, individuals or
organizations can make a real difference in individuals’ lives then
it is worth the effort and cost.
Involvement can be measured in dollars and cents, but the reality is
that certain ideas and behaviours are what a conception of a properly
functioning state needs, especially in a state where human security
and safety are of paramount importance. It is imperfect but it is
something that can be sought and attempted with costs sometimes not
factoring into the final decision.
Positive change may prove to be tedious, and relapses may occur, but
in the end it is something to which the alternative is totally
unacceptable. Making change can be done by emphasizing, perhaps even
going as far as demanding, the establishment of law, order, and human
security. These elements can then as the foundation of a state, but
their implementation must be at the beginning of a journey in which
high ideals of human rights, respect for in individual and creation
of prosperity can begin to flourish.