FOREIGN AFFAIRS: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Australian force in East Timor reduced
, March 20, 2010
Despite the significant Chinese Government presence in East Timor, the Australian Government has cut the Australian military presence in East Timor from 650 to about 400, with a corresponding decrease in the size of the International Stabilisation Force, established in the wake of the civil war which erupted in 2006.
In 2006, units of East Timor's defence force went on strike and were sacked, while other units, loyal to the Fretilin Government led by self-styled communist Mari Alkatiri, turned their weapons on the police force, leading to the murder of a number of unarmed police in the centre of Dili.
Since then, elections in 2007 led to defeat of the Fretilin Government and the formation of a new government headed by Xanana Gusmao, leader of the East Timorese resistance to the Indonesian occupation, and three pro-Western parties, the Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party, and ASDT, the Timorese Social Democratic Association.
There was a brief political crisis in 2008, when a former military officer, Major Alfredo Reinado, led an attempt to kidnap East Timor's then Prime Minister, José Ramos Horta, and Xanana Gusmao.
In the course of the gunfight, Reinado was shot dead and Horta was seriously wounded, spending some weeks recuperating in Darwin Hospital.
Subsequently, violence has diminished with a gradual improvement in economic activity, although gang violence remains a problem in some parts of the country.
The recently retired head of the International Stabilisation Force, Commodore Stuart Mayer (RAN), justified the cutbacks, saying, "East Timor's military and police have come a long way since the upheaval of 2006. The military and police have shown greater discipline and respect for the rule of law and are increasingly able to co-ordinate and work together."
He added, "Many of the practices and approaches to civil safety and security that we have been encouraging are now appearing in the field. These professional improvements are taking place not because we are telling the East Timorese what to do, but because their police and military are taking charge of their own futures.
"Looking around East Timor today, people are less worried by security matters and are more concerned with issues such as education and jobs. This evolution is an indication of a country with confidence that peace is here to stay and they now want to move on to the next challenges.
"The fact that we have been able to move beyond these security issues is rewarding for all Australian and New Zealand service personnel who have deployed to East Timor."
However, there has been concern about the actions of international military personnel. For example, when an Australian military vehicle accidentally killed a mother of nine children late last year, there was understandable resentment when no compensation was offered to her family. Such incidents have damaged relations between international peace-keepers and the East Timorese people.
There is also widely-felt resentment that government prosecutors laid criminal charges against people allegedly involved in the attempted kidnapping of Horta and Xanana Gusmao in 2008, but few charges have been laid against those involved in the much more widespread violence in 2006, when hundreds of people were killed, and tens of thousands forced into internal exile.
Because the civil war in 2006 involved the political leadership of the country, not just former Fretilin Interior Minister Rogerio Lobato, but also then Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri and then President Xanana Gusmao, there is a widely-held perception that the political leadership has been protected from prosecution.
While there have been improvements in the security situation, concerns have been expressed, both in the United Nations and in East Timor's parliament, that insufficient has been done to train the police force to carry out its vital role fairly and honestly.
The recent UN Security Council resolution reaffirming the UN's mission in East Timor urged the mission to "intensify its efforts to assist with further training, mentoring, institutional development and strengthening of the PNTL [East Timor national police force] with a view to enhancing its effectiveness, including with respect to community policing, and to address the special needs of women".
The resolution followed reports of abuses and human rights violations by police officers, such as assaulting citizens in the course of questioning in connection with the recent crack-down on allegedly organised criminal activities in the western frontier districts of Cova Lima and Bobonaro, near the Indonesian border.
The Security Council resolution referred to the fact that high levels of unemployment, arising from under-development, were contributing to the political challenges which the country faces.
In spite of this, East Timor's economy grew by over 10 per cent last year - admittedly from a very low base - and over $US5.4 billion ($6 billion) is invested by the National Petroleum Fund from royalties and taxes associated with the natural gas fields in the Timor Sea.