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Talk of failed states unhelpful

Minh Nguyen*

Versions of this op-ed published in Pacific Magazine, 20/6/06; Online Catholics, 21/6/06; and The Jakarta Post, 23/6/06


Australians should be sceptical when politicians talk about “failed” or “failing” states – especially when referring to East Timor.

Following a period of relative quiet, the notion of failed or failing states is again making headlines in Australia as its troops struggle to disarm warring gangs in East Timor. While such talk is designed to harvest support for the troops’ presence in the country, the “failed state” label for East Timor is neither accurate nor helpful as a way forward for the new nation.

In recent weeks key government ministers have warned that East Timor risks becoming a failed state unless the situation quickly stabilises. The government says that Australia cannot afford to have the country turn into a failed state and, as Australian Defence Minister Brendan Nelson puts it, to have it “become a haven, perhaps, for transnational crime, for terrorism, and indeed humanitarian disasters and injustice.”

The last time a government minister spoke so passionately about failing states in Australia’s region was in mid-2003 when discussions pre-empted and explained Australia’s intervention to restore law and order in the Solomon Islands.

The successful intervention in the Solomons was quickly heralded as a model for humanitarian involvement in conflict situations around the world. With support secured for Australia’s involvement, the term “failing states” dropped out of vogue. Even the government’s major aid policy White Paper, released last month and composed in the months before violence broke out in East Timor and the Solomons, opted for the euphemistic “fragile states” to describe these nations.

An analysis by the Uniya research centre last year of the government’s use of the failed states label revealed a highly nuanced term; applied only in situations in which the Government intended to intervene militarily or had already intervened in a particular state. It comes as no surprise, then, that the term has only been used against Afghanistan, Iraq, the Solomon Islands and now East Timor.

The Government seems to think the only way of boosting domestic and international support for its overseas operations is to call forth the spectre of an “arc of instability” in the region, complete with unsubstantiated claims about a link between failed states and international terrorism and crime.

Even if it is to convince other states of the worthiness of intervention, politicising the idea of state failure – an idea that once served as a useful description for states where human rights were abused – is not only inaccurate but counter-productive. For East Timor, an already difficult situation could be made worse by implicitly taking sides in the conflict; or worse still, by implying that the East Timorese would have fared better under Indonesian occupation.

In the latest issue of The Monthly, Paul Keating’s former speechwriter Don Watson suggests what the thinking was behind Australia’s previous support for Indonesian occupation: “Life under a murderous occupation … might be better than life in a failed state, albeit one perennially dependent on Australian aid and Australian policy. What is more, in an imperfect world Suharto’s Indonesia was a lot better than its critics were willing to concede.”

Australia cannot afford a return to such thinking. The idea that independence was a mistake will not sit well with the families of the victims of former dictator Suharto’s brutal occupation; an occupation that resulted in the death of more than 100,000 people, of whom approximately 18,600 died directly at the hands of the Indonesian military, according to California-based Benetech’s statistical analysis.

The East Timorese desire for self-determination – as shown at the 1999 ballot in which 78.5 per cent voted for independence despite possible violent reprisals – cannot be so easily dismissed. While there may be truth in Gerard Henderson’s claims in a recent Herald column that clan-based division is rife in the tiny country, there are no suggestions that the Kaladis (westerners) see themselves as a nation separate to that of the Firakus (easterners).

Most keen observers will say there are many factors contributing to the present crisis. Obvious is Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri’s failure to accommodate the Kaladi soldiers’ concerns over alleged discrimination. Others would argue that Australia’s precipitous withdrawal from East Timor laid the foundation for the current conflict. Beyond this, Australia must also assess how its own “rumours” are being played out in East Timor.

Labelling East Timor as a “poorly governed” or “failing” state sends a wrong message to the East Timorese rebel leaders and could be seen to imply that Australia is keen on regime change. Such talk offers little hope for a solution that does not involve the removal of the democratically elected Prime Minister and his Fretilin party.

East Timor’s political complexities cannot be reduced to simple slogans. A United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report published in January highlighted the country’s shortcomings but also the positive steps it has taken in recent years. While noting its low human development index and the fact that people are still “chained by poverty”, the report praised the nation’s democracy as being “in the vanguard of popular participation” – hardly the sort of observations one would make of a failing state.

Robert Johnson, an occasional United Nations advisor who lives Dili, says that the blueprint for Timor’s achievements is in its National Development Plan – a “roadmap” for development established through a process of national popular consultation under the leadership of the now embattled Alkatiri. With all the talk about failing states, one might be surprise to learn that Australia’s aid agency has described East Timor’s advancement in implementing the Plan as “impressive”.

But a greater surprise comes from the World Bank. It has throughout the crisis stood by Alkatiri, the man accused by one Jakarta-based Australian journalist of being a “1960s Marxist-style ‘Che Guevara’ figure”. The Bank director Paul Wolfowitz, a staunch “neoconservative” and former mover and shaker in the Bush administration, said last month, “Timor-Leste has achieved much thanks to the country’s sensible leadership and sound decision-making which have helped put in place the building blocks for a stable peace and a growing economy.”

Such support paints a more complex picture of an East Timor with mixed achievements and highlights the unavoidable fact that nation-building is an ongoing, long-term process. As the UNDP report prophetically concludes, the East Timorese people will face “many painful decisions” in realising where they want to go as a nation. Their journey could be made less painful through continued practical assistance from Australia. It could be made better with moral support and well-informed and robust debates. As the latest crisis approaches its second month, the last thing the East Timorese need is more rumours about a failed or failing state.

* Minh Nguyen is a researcher at Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre and has authored several reports on the human rights situation in the Asia Pacific region.

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