The World's Youngest Failed State

Letter From East Timor

A Malaysian peacekeeper stands guard on the roof of a mosque in the East Timor capital of Dili. (Courtesy Reuters)

By almost any measure, Southeast Asia is thriving. The region has a population of over 600 million, brings in more foreign investment than China, and boasts a combined GDP of $2.5 trillion, larger than India’s $1.9 trillion economy. It is no wonder, then, that Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and their neighbors have received plenty of international praise in recent years.

But there is an outlier in the region, and it tends to go unnoticed. In the 12 years since gaining independence, Asia’s youngest country, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste -- better known as East Timor -- has struggled in almost every facet of economic and political management. The country recently submitted a formal application to join its ten neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), but it’s difficult to see how it belongs in the club. As its neighboring economies boom, East Timor is quietly on the path to becoming a failed state. And it is quickly running out of time to change course.

ADDICTED TO OIL

East Timor’s path to independence was long and difficult. In the mid-1700s, the Portuguese colonized the eastern half of the island of Timor, as the Dutch took control of the western end (which later became part of Indonesia’s territory). Over the next two centuries, Portugal all but forgot about its colonial outpost, using it only for small-scale trade purposes. In 1974, as Portugal decolonized its empire following a revolution in Lisbon, East Timor was freed. But the respite was brief. Beginning in late 1975, East Timor suffered a brutal 24-year military occupation by Indonesia (which sought to control both halves of Timor); over 100,000 East Timorese were killed during this period. In 1999, the UN finally intervened to secure the area’s independence. After two years of transitional government overseen by the UN, East Timor became a sovereign nation in 2002.

Post-independence, the country suffered periodic episodes of conflict, most notably in 2006, when violent riots against government forces caused the displacement of 150,000 people, and in 2008, when military rebels attempted to assassinate Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão and then President José Ramos-Horta.

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