Lessons from East Timor for South Sudan: Three Things Nation #193 Can Learn from #191

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Members of the Sudan People's Liberation Army stand at attention on July 5, 2011. (AP Photo/Pete Muller)

The verdict, it seems, is already in. Many are already calling South Sudan, which will become the world’s 193rd nation on July 9, a soon-to-be failed state. Indeed, the prognosis is grim: as its secession from Sudan has drawn near, nearly 2000 people in the south have been killed in inter-militia fighting.  Hundreds more are dead after a month-long campaign by Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to clear South Kordofan, a disputed state in the north, of rebels who fought with the south for independence.

(See pictures of the conflict in South Kordofan.)

The development challenges of the new nation are also daunting, to say the least. As United Nations General Ban Ki-Moon wrote in a July 8 editorial in the International Herald Tribune, “On the day of its birth, South Sudan will rank near the bottom of all recognized human development indices. The statistics are truly humbling.”

There is a big job to be done in the shiny new Republic, and thousands of miles away on the other side of the planet, the recent history of a much different nation may offer some guidance in how to do it. In 2002, East Timor became Nation No. 191 (Montenegro is 192). It faced similar predictions of failure as it prepared to secede from the massive and powerful state of Indonesia. Like South Sudan, after decades of unrest, residents had voted overwhelmingly for independence. And like South Sudan, nobody thought they could pull it off.

Yet today East Timor — while certainly not without problems — is a functioning state that has successfully held democratic elections, maintained a healthy opposition in the process, and avoided the resource curse to manage its vast oil revenues with reasonable success. “It proves that most of the skeptics were wrong,” says Geoffrey Robinson, a professor at UCLA who worked as a U.N. adviser in East Timor in 1999 in the run-up to independence. “All of the pundits said it will never work, [saying] ‘It’s too poor. It’s too small. There’s no infrastructure.’ Things you would have read about colonized countries in the 1940s.”

The first ten years of East Timor’s independence, of course, have not been perfect. But there are a few important pointers that South Sudan can take away from East Timor’s decade of failures and successes. Robinson, who also authored the book If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die: How Genocide Was Stopped in East Timor, outlined a few lessons that South Sudan might glean from its predecessor for TIME.

Don’t underestimate the legacy of violence.

In places where violence has ruled people’s lives for decades, abrupt peace can become a vacuum that sometimes fills back up — with more violence. “People who have been involved in long term violence don’t simply stop it once one side goes away,” says Robinson. “People learn violence.”

Like South Sudan, where two million people died in the north and south during two civil wars spanning decades, East Timor was born out of death. In 1975, Indonesia invaded the then-Portuguese colony, and subsequently over 100,000 East Timorese were killed in a genocidal counterinsurgency aimed at rooting out independence-minded political factions and their supporters. In 1999, after the Indonesian dictator Suharto stepped down and a new government in Jakarta allowed East Timor to cast a vote on its future, the population was again subjected to violence at the hands of the Indonesian military and Jakarta-backed militias leading up to and after the referendum.

Many of the problems the nation has had in its first decade can be traced back to those experiences, says Robinson. In 2006, factional violence erupted in East Timor between hundreds of former soldiers and the military. “The problems in 2006 were a legacy of the Indonesian occupation,” he says. “You see it in the way the police and military behave. People who have been victims or witnesses to violence tended to replicate those tactics…. [they] are far too brutal.”

Re-integrating soldiers and militia members that have been fighting for years for independence is another part of this legacy. For ex freedom fighters, the specter of war with the forces they have spent years battling will still loom large — a fear that conflicts with a new government that may be seeking to mend ties with the leaders of the government it has seceded from. “You have to walk a very careful line between demobilizing guerrilla troops, and just saying ‘go home,’” says Robinson. “And if you do turn them into an army, you might end up with trouble on your hands.”

Don’t let guests wear out their welcome.

If you’ve been to a developing nation or a conflict zone, you’ve seen them: The clumsy white SUVs lumbering over unpaved roads, and the bars filled with white faces of NGO workers talking about capacity building. For visitors to places where there are the dual economies of international aid — that of the foreign workers and that of the people they are there to help — it’s merely uncomfortable. For the people who call these places home, it can be a source of simmering resentment, and in the local governments, it can be a source of huge political tension.

Between 1999 and 2002, the U.N. helped secure East Timor and then establish a transitional authority. International intervention both arguably saved the nascent nation from genocide at the hands of the Indonesian military and then went on to work symbiotically with the new government. East Timor’s new leaders welcomed the U.N. to help with development and security in these early days; it was felt the young police force and military could not stand up to any major act of aggression from Indonesia alone.

Though political pressure for the international community to transition out started to build after 2002, in 2006, when in-fighting racked the country, the U.N.’s intervention is widely credited with preventing what could have spiraled into civil war, and the East Timorese government asked the UN to stay.

Now again, many in East Timor feel that its time for the U.N. to go, and many in the U.N. would tend to agree with them. But after ten years, it’s not that easy to leave, or, indeed, to be left. “At the beginning, it was great,” says Robinson. “But there is a general perception now, because the U.N. still has a big mission there, that they’ve been there too long. The local leadership, whatever its problems, is very frustrated with that. It’s causing a lot of tension.”

Listen to Norway.

Both South Sudan and East Timor have tremendous oil wealth, which makes them both prime targets for the dread resource curse. The amount of money flowing through new public institutions leaves the nations vulnerable to corruption, which means the benefits of a great natural resource may never make it out of politicians’ pockets to their constituents who need it the most. One diplomat in Juba told TIME that $3 billion of the $12 billion that the government of South Sudan has earned from oil since 2005 is missing. “It’s easy for that kind of wealth to fuel corruption,” says Robinson. “This is not a cultural argument; it’s simply a question of single source of wealth flowing through power.”

East Timor has made a respectable effort to curb rampant misuse of money coming from its oilfields. In particular, they have been open to advice on setting up systems of checks and balances on tracking oil revenues from Norway, one of the few nations where vast oil wealth has hugely benefited the nation and where corruption levels are very low.

In cases where East Timorese politicians have tried to deviate from those policies, Robinson says the parliament has held its leaders accountable. The ongoing challenge there, as it will be in South Sudan, is now to see a more equitable distribution of this wealth, particularly outside the capital areas. In both countries there are still huge swaths of the country that lack infrastructure and are difficult to access. That needs to change if everyone is going to benefit from being an oil-rich state. “It’s a challenge,” says Robinson, “but it’s not an impossible challenge.”

Krista Mahr is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kristamahr. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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