Ian Martin : "Timor-Leste was not a failed state...it was a young state!"


2012 is a ten-year celebration, but it is 13 years since the agreement of May 1999, which promised that the people of East Timor would at last be able to exercise their right to self-determination. Before the end of that month, having been appointed by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan as his Special Representative for the Popular Consultation, I was being greeted by Xanana Gusmao in his prison house in Jakarta with the words: “We have been waiting 24 years for the United Nations.”


Days later, I was raising the UN flag at the Balide compound which became the headquarters of UNAMET, the UN Mission in East Timor. The weeks which followed were full of drama and hard decisions. Deploying UN staff – mostly UN Volunteers – to the remotest districts of East Timor, to register voters. Confronting the militia created by the Indonesian Army, and a campaign of disinformation against UNAMET by Indonesian intelligence. Flying to Jakarta to present to General Wiranto the realities of TNI complicity in human rights abuses and threats to the UN. Taking a UN helicopter to Uai Mori to meet Falintil Deputy Commander Taur Matan Ruak, and later bringing him to Dili to meet with the TNI Commander.


Agonising over whether it was right to proceed with the ballot when pro-independence supporters were being intimidated and the Indonesians were flagrantly violating their commitment to maintain security and impartiality. Feeling deeply moved by the courage of the East Timorese voters who flocked to the polls on 25 August 1999, and proud of the commitment and performance of UNAMET national and international staff who defied all the threats and difficulties to ensure that the ballot went ahead.


Still greater drama was to follow. On 5 September, I announced the overwhelming vote for independence at the then Makhota Hotel, simultaneously with the Secretary-General’s announcement at UN headquarters in New York. Already Timorese staff of UNAMET had been killed in revenge for their role in the ballot, and following the announcement, the TNI unleashed the militia to go on the rampage across the territory.  As UNAMET was chased out of the districts, international staff stood by their Timorese colleagues whenever they could, and brought them to our Dili compound. A UN police officer was seriously wounded in Liquica, and in Baucau UNAMET staff lay on the floor as bullets poured into their office.

 Under siege in Dili, we could know little of the atrocities being committed - only later would we learn of the Suai Church massacre, directed by TNI officers and militia leaders whom we knew all too well. Timorese driven from their homes took refuge in the UN compound, and UN staff volunteered to remain with them rather than leave them behind in a general evacuation. Security Council members came to visit us, and added to the pressure on Habibie and Wiranto to accept international military intervention. Finally, we were able to take all those in the UNAMET compound with us to Darwin.


Only days later, I returned to Dili with Australian General Peter Cosgrove. I was privileged to be present for the return of Xanana Gusmao, and to be seen off by him when I handed over the UN leadership to Sergio Vieira de Mello.


In the years that followed, I had several opportunities to return to East Timor. I was a guest at the CNRT congress in 2000, bowled over when I was greeted by the original singers performing the UNAMET song which was part of our voter education campaign of 1999. I was a member of Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s party at the handover ceremony of May 2002. I came again to testify about the events of 1999 to the CAVR (the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation).


What I did not expect was that I would be sent back to an independent Timor-Leste in crisis. In May 2006, I was looking forward to a holiday, after the human rights monitoring mission I headed in Nepal had been on the front lines of the extraordinary People’s Movement there, which heralded the end of both the country’s civil war and its monarchy. I had read with dismay of the fighting between and among Timor-Leste’s police and army. But I was hardly expecting the phone call from Secretary-General Kofi Annan which asked me to go directly to Dili as his Special Envoy, to see what the UN could do to help contain the crisis. My first thought was to take with me Tamrat Samuel, had been my tutor and adviser regarding East Timor in 1999, when his experience of East Timor was already long-standing.


It was terrible to see buildings burning again in Dili, and to know that this time it was fellow Timorese alone who had attacked them; to see families displaced, and to know that this time their fear was of their own countrymen; to see Australian troops back on the streets, and to know that this time they were protecting against violence which had no external direction. When I reported back to the UN Security Council in New York, there was dismay at the apparent failure of a UN peace-building operation previously hailed as a success. Was independent Timor-Leste already a failed state?


My message to the international community then was that Timor-Leste was not a failed state: it was a young state, and the tragic events of 2006 could yet prove a wake-up call to its divided leadership. My next visit was when I was privileged to represent Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Popular Consultation on 30 August 2009. Already then, I found that the commitment of all Timorese leaders to avoid another 2006 was real, and that they were determined that differences should be resolved through the democratic process. In 2012, I not only hope but believe that this is the case. The UN’s commitment to East Timor in 1999 was that its people should enjoy the internationally-recognised right to self-determination. I trust that the will of a remarkable people shall be fairly expressed and respected in 2012, and in peaceful years ahead.