The United Nations gets so much criticism it's easy to forget it does a lot of good. And there are few better examples than the U.N. role in resolving the crisis over the Indonesian province of East Timor - a success story with lessons for Iraq and Afghanistan as they prepare to hold national elections.
Even when the electoral process is fraught with danger, people repressed for decades display a remarkable ability to persevere, as shown by the pride with which East Timorese registered in 1999 for their first-ever election:
"The registration card, a simple scrap of paper, had suddenly become the most valued possession of over 400,000 people," Jamsheed Marker writes. "It was carefully preserved, concealed and guarded until the day its possessor could redeem it in the vote, an exercise of freedom so long awaited."
In recent years, East Timor has faded from international view. But in the 1990s, talks between Portugal and Indonesia over the fate of this former Portuguese colony made headlines as violence raged between pro- and anti-independence factions.
East Timor's story is a dramatic one, and few are better able to tell it than Marker, the U.N. special envoy who steered the tense negotiations.
For three decades, Marker was Pakistan's ambassador to the United States and other countries. He and wife, Arnaz, retired to St. Petersburg but Marker wouldn't stay put for long.
In 1997, he got a call from Kofi Annan, an old friend who had just been named secretary-general of the United Nations. Would Marker help negotiate an end to 22 years of strife in East Timor?
"I knew as much as most people did of the East Timorese problem, which was not very much," Marker writes. Nonetheless, at 74, he began the round-the-world diplomacy that ultimately led to East Timor's independence.
Occupying half of a small island, East Timor was ruled by Portugal until it abruptly pulled out in 1974. Indonesia, which controlled the other half of the island, invaded a year later and set in motion two decades of fighting and famine that killed some 250,000 people.
Early on, Marker faced a seemingly insurmountable problem. Portugal, perhaps feeling guilty about leaving its colony with little more than "one doctor and 20 miles of paved road," was adamant that the East Timorese decide their own future. Indonesia's president, Suharto, was equally insistent that East Timor remain part of Indonesia.
Moreover, the negotiations came at a critical time for Indonesia itself. After decades of Suharto's dictatorial rule, the world's fourth largest nation faced an economic crisis and widespread corruption. Compared to what was happening in the rest of Indonesia, East Timor was small potatoes, Marker realized:
"We were dealing with half an island in an archipelago of 16,000 islands, and with a population of under 1-million in an overall population of over 200-million. God forbid, but if Indonesia were to implode, then there was not much that we could do about East Timor."
Discouraged, Marker told Annan that trying to negotiate a settlement was "a bit like polishing the dinner silver on the Titanic." The secretary-general, a man of boundless optimism, merely chuckled and replied: "Well, let's go on doing it."
In 1998, Suharto resigned, and the outlook for East Timor suddenly brightened. Suharto's successor, B.J. Habibie, knowing what a drag East Timor had become on Indonesia's economy and image, stunned the world by announcing residents could decide their fate.
But the agreement on self-determination created a new set of challenges.
Portugal wanted the vote to be held on a Sunday, figuring that East Timor's Catholic residents would be more apt to choose independence from the Muslim nation of Indonesia if they went to the polling places straight from church. For the same reason, Indonesia wanted the vote on a Saturday; the two sides compromised on a Monday.
The greatest threat to a free and fair election, however, came from the growing chaos in East Timor. U.N. officials feared Indonesia would be unable to protect voters, given that some of Indonesia's own troops supported the armed militias who were terrorizing pro-independence factions.
Even Marker had close calls, like the time he and two colleagues were waiting for a flight out of Dili, the capital. The arriving pilot, seeing an angry crowd at the terminal, taxied right past them and promptly took off again.
Marker's group had to be evacuated by helicopter in a scene reminiscent of the Broadway hit Miss Saigon. They jokingly considered a sequel - Miss East Timor.
Despite increasing violence, the United Nations prepared for the election in just a few short weeks. Even more amazing was the resolve of the East Timorese themselves - 60,000 who had fled from the militias registered to vote "before disappearing back into their hideouts in the forests and the hills," Marker writes.
The Aug. 30, 1999, election came off without a hitch. Almost 100 percent of registered voters went to the polls, greeting Marker and other observers with "joy and enthusiasm and hope-filled eyes." The vote for independence was overwhelming.
But, in a portent of what could happen in Iraq and Afghanistan, the failure to disarm the militias led to a burst of post-election savagery. More than 1,000 people were killed and Dili was nearly destroyed before a U.N. peacekeeping force took control.
For the next three years, East Timor was a U.N. protectorate. Then, on May 20, 2002, the U.N. flag came down and the East Timorese flag went up. In a moving display of unity, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who once opposed independence, stood beside East Timor's new president, Xanana Gusmao, the charismatic freedom fighter who had spent years in an Indonesian prison.
Marker also has high praise for B.J. Habibie, whose decision to "release East Timor" gave a major boost to negotiations. (Habibie comes across as a quirky character - at a dinner honoring the Markers, he "leapt out of his chair" and broke into 1950s rock 'n' roll songs.)
A few quibbles with this book. A map would have helped. And it can be hard keeping track of the bureaucratic acronyms - UNAMET, INTERFET and CNRT, to name just a few.
But overall, Marker's memoir is an inspiring account of how courageous leaders, a determined population and strong U.N. involvement overcame huge obstacles to create a democratic nation. It is a reminder - at a time when the United States rushed to war in Iraq - that the delicate art of diplomacy sometimes produces happier results than billions of dollars in military might.
-- Susan Taylor Martin is the Times' senior correspondent.
EAST TIMOR: A Memoir of the Negotiations for Independence