Failing Fragile States: Canada and East Timor 1975-99

Opening section of my chapter in the new book From Kinshasa to Kandahar: Canada and Fragile States in Historical Perspective, just out from University of Calgary Press. This is a free e-book available for download in e-book format or chapter-by-chapter as pdf.

Canada’s approach to failed and fragile states has been linked to the wave of decolonization that swept Asia and Africa in the second half of the twentieth century, and its often chaotic aftermath. One decolonization that made small but still noticeable ripples in Ottawa was the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, normally referred to as East Timor. This small half-island state joined its fellow Portuguese colonies Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau in starting on the path to independence in 1974. After an internal conflict, it declared independence on 28 November 1975. Yet, just over a week later, on 7 December, Indonesian troops launched a full-scale invasion. The subsequent twenty-four years of military occupation cost some 200,000 lives out of a population of 680,000 people, a bloody toll that, along with the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, knows few parallels in modern Southeast Asian history. In 1999, finally, a United Nations (UN) referendum saw the Timorese vote overwhelmingly for independence. Under an interim UN administration, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste regained its independence in 2002, using the same name and flying the same flag as the short-lived state of 1975. Amidst some post-independence troubles, it celebrated the tenth anniversary of regaining independence in 2012, a year also marked by its third free election and a peaceful transition of power. The government changed again peacefully in 2015, when the prime minister stepped down in favour of a leading member of the major opposition party.

In 1975, East Timor was called an impossible state, too small and poor to do anything but fail. Similar rhetoric preceded East Timor’s passage to independence in 1999, and continues into the twenty-first century. Constructivist political scientists have pointed out that rhetoric matters: the languages used to describe overseas conflicts often shape how Western publics view faraway lands and underpin government policy decisions about them. The argument of this chapter is that this rhetoric of state failure is derived from outside, not based on any reality on the ground. More importantly, the rhetoric of “failure” has helped to construct the very thing it warns against. If a state like East Timor is a “failed” state, the “failure” comes from outside.

It is worth taking into account some of what has been written to challenge the prevailing notion of “failed states.” With regard to Haiti, Globe and Mail columnist Rick Salutin has suggested “that ‘failed’ could also be used the way ‘disappeared’ is now used in Latin America: as an active verb. Countries can ‘fail’ other countries, the way the police or army ‘disappear’ protesters.” This does not suggest a simple failure to act; it means that at times the “international community”—meaning, usually, Western governments—works actively to ensure failure through intervention, economic pressure, or other means. The constructed image of a state as “failed” can then be used to justify intervention, as it has been in Afghanistan.

Click over to UCP to read the rest of the chapter or the whole book.