Monday December 31, 2012
E. Timor bids farewell to peacekeepers after 13 years
DILI: The UN ends its peacekeeping mission in East Timor Monday after 13 years of boots on the ground in Asia's youngest nation following a bloody transition to independence.
UN forces first entered the territory around the vote for independence from Indonesia in 1999 that gave way to political unrest and bloodshed, and around 1,500 peacekeepers were based there since.
The final batch of troops and logistics staff left in the morning as the mission prepared to take down its flag, departing from a country struggling with widespread malnutrition and maternal mortality rates that are among the worst in the world.
East Timor's leaders said they were excited about their nation's new direction despite the many problems that lie ahead for the fragile democracy.
"In the end we have to say goodbye to the UN with... high appreciation for what they have been doing in Timor-Leste," Deputy Prime Minister Fernando La Sama de Araujo told AFP, referring to the nation by its official name.
He said East Timor would now focus on serious development challenges, starting with improving schools, hospitals and human resources in the public sector.
"But we're optimistic that in 10 years, coming together with many friends around the world including UN agencies for development, we can overcome these challenges," he said, as a jovial Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao played with hundreds of children.
The country ranked 147 out of 187 nations and territories listed in the 2011 UN human development index.
Government critics have highlighted the economy's heavy reliance on significant but depleting offshore oil and gas reserves that they say benefit urban Timorese more than the regional poor.
There are also concerns that rampant poverty, high unemployment rates among the youth and a fast-growing population could lead to future unrest.
Observers say there is little indication that there will be renewed violence in the short term, but public institutions, including the police force and judiciary, remain weak.
The current UN mission was established in 2006, when a mass desertion among the armed forces prompted fighting between military factions and police, and street violence left at least 37 people dead and tens of thousands displaced.
The final day of the mission has been mostly administrative, with peacekeeping operations ending in earnest in October, when the national police resumed responsibility for security.
Despite the challenges it faces standing on its own feet, East Timor will celebrate the new year with several notches on its belt from 2012: it marked a decade of formal independence and held three rounds of largely-peaceful elections, voting in a new president and parliament.
"Although there remains much work ahead, this is an historic moment in recognising the progress already made," UN mission chief Finn Reske-Nielsen said in a statement.
"The Timorese people and its leaders have shown courage and unswerving resolve to overcome great challenges."
UN under-secretary general and former head of the East Timor mission Ameerah Haq said "everything happened as it should", claiming a rare peacekeeping success for the global body.
The UN-administered referendum in 1999 ended Indonesia's brutal 24-year occupation, in which around 183,000 people - then a quarter of the population - died from fighting, starvation or disease.
The global body oversaw East Timor until 2002, when an independent government took over.
The only major violence since 2006 was a failed assassination attempt on then-president Jose Ramos-Horta in 2008. - AFP