The departure of the last United Nations troops from East Timor on Dec. 31 made an important point to the world -- that U.N. troops can be pivotal in helping a wobbly country to stand on its own two feet.
The country also known as Timor Leste, with 1.2 million people, occupies half of a Southeast Asian island, with the other half part of Indonesia. It was colonized by the Portuguese in 1769, occupied by the Japanese during World War II and invaded by Indonesia in 1975. It became independent in principle after a U.N. referendum in 1999. It is predominantly Roman Catholic, its capital is Dili and it uses the U.S. dollar as currency.
Its first years of independence were shaky. Australia sent a peacekeeping unit, followed by a U.N. force that grew to 1,600. Fighting among Timorese factions in 2006 required vigorous action by the peacekeepers to control. There was an assassination attempt against East Timor's elected president in 2008. Its problems are compounded by a weak economy. Exports include marble, coffee and sandalwood, plus some oil and natural gas.
Nonetheless, the United Nations, including the peacekeepers, labored long and hard to train East Timor's police to keep order and succeeded to the extent that the Timorese and others, including the heavily involved Australians, agreed that the U.N. peacekeepers could leave.
There is no question that the U.N. presence helped a lot. No one would argue that East Timor could have reached the level of self-reliance it has now without the United Nations having played a constructive role. The United States certainly had no interest in becoming involved there.
A look at East Timor's bloody history, characterized by resistance against the Portuguese, Japanese and Indonesians and eventually by infighting among its own people, argues that it could not establish nationhood easily, or certainly without external assistance. Thus, the country and its people should be commended. This success should encourage a U.N. role in achieving viability in other troubled states such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Liberia, Somalia and South Sudan.