East Timor not-so-proudly holds two distinctions: founded just five years ago after a long civil war, it’s the world’s newest country; and by some measures it is the poorest place on the planet. Institutional youth and extreme poverty for the million Timorese — plus Timor’s unenviable location at the cross-roads of Muslim Southeast Asia and the Christian Commonwealth — are a potentially explosive combination, so it’s no wonder that the place is crawling with native security forces, U.N. police and soldiers from Australia and New Zealand. The number of foreign forces is only growing in the wake of minor riots last year and with presidential elections on April 9. The world is eager to see its youngest child raised up right.
East Timor’s capital city, Dili, is tiny: flying in on a twin-engine propeller plane from Darwin in northern Australia, the city appears suddenly from behind mist-shrouded green mountains that rise out of the sea. There are no tall buildings, no major highways, very little port infrastructure and the airport – home base for Australian and U.N. helicopters and transport planes – boasts just one short runway. While plagued with all the standard Third World ills – tumbling garbage in the crowded streets, squatters in shanties in every free space, livestock roaming free – the city is not without its charms. The people are friendly even to foreign reporters, there’s a modern cell phone infrastructure and the trees … oh, the trees. Along the filthy beach rise ancient, gnarled tropical trees that look like mangrove: they’re as big around as many California Redwoods and just a handful create a canopy like you might seen in a rainforest, a canopy that shrugs off even the region’s sudden, furious evening rainstorms.
On Wednesday morning I’m sitting underneath one of these tremendous trees, refusing peddlers’ offers of bottled water, fruit and cigarettes, watching children splashing in the surf and Aussie Kiowa scout choppers and U.N. Mi-8 transports buzzing around the airfield. U.N. police are as thick as flies, but they just cruise in their SUVs and watch, rarely even leaving their vehicles, so nobody’s hassled unless a hassling is truly in order. An Australian supply truck trundles past; the driver’s sidearm is the first weapon I’ve seen here.
This is how I like my conflict zones: peaceful. The best use of military power is at times like these, in struggling countries that are ripe for early intervention and rife with potential. It no longer seems ironic to me that the world’s most fearsome fighting forces make powerful calming agents for developing countries.