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Monday, July 9, 2012

Timor-Leste: Political Dynamics, Development, and International Involvement

Ben Dolven
Specialist in Asian Affairs

Rhoda Margesson
Specialist in International Humanitarian Policy

Bruce Vaughn
Specialist in Asian Affairs

The Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste gained independence on May 20, 2002, after a long history of Portuguese colonialism and, more recently, Indonesian rule. The young nation, with a population of 1.1 million, has been aided by the United Nations under several different mandates under which the U.N. has provided peacekeeping, humanitarian, reconstruction and capacity building assistance to establish a functioning government. The current United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) is slated to withdraw from the nation at the end of 2012.

The independence of Timor-Leste (also known as East Timor) followed a U.N.-organized 1999 referendum in which the East Timorese overwhelmingly voted for independence. In response, Indonesian-backed pro-integrationist militias went on a rampage, killing an estimated 1,300 people and destroying much of Timor-Leste’s infrastructure. For several years thereafter, the international community’s main concern focused on possible tensions in East Timor’s relations with Indonesia. Since 2006 the main threat to East Timor has been internal strife resulting from weak state institutions, rivalries among elites and security forces, deep-set poverty, unemployment, east-west tensions within the country, and population displacement.

The situation in Timor-Leste in 2012 is relatively calm compared with recent periods of political strife and insurrection. The country held Presidential elections in March and April, which led to the election of Tuar Matan Rauk, a former army chief. The U.N. described the polls as “peaceful, smooth and orderly.” Parliamentary polls are due on July 7. Stability has been aided by the 2006 reintroduction of peacekeeping troops and a United Nations mission, the flow of revenue from hydrocarbon resources in the Timor Sea, and improved political stability. East Timor has significant energy resources beneath the Timor Sea.

That said, Timor-Leste faces many serious challenges as it seeks to establish and deepen a stable democracy and develop its economy. Many institutions in the young nation remain weak, and tensions remain between the young country’s political elites and among security forces. Timor- Leste remains one of Asia’s poorest nations, ranking 147th out of 187 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index. Generating economic opportunity and employment are among the government’s greatest challenges.

Congressional concerns have focused on security and the role of the United Nations, human rights, East Timor’s boundary disputes with Australia and Indonesia, and the strengthening of the nation’s political system and functioning of its parliament. Key challenges for Timor-Leste include creating enough political stability to focus on building state capacity and infrastructure, providing employment, and preventing the oil-and-gas revenue stream from being squandered by corruption or poor investment decisions.

Date of Report: July 3, 2012
Number of Pages: 20
Order Number: R42585
Price: $29.95

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