: Nguyen : Talk of failed states
Talk of failed states unhelpful
Versions of this op-ed published in Pacific Magazine,
20/6/06; Online Catholics, 21/6/06; and The Jakarta
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
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
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
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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