Subject: SMH: Security a priority, and neighbours play key rolet

Sydney Morning Herald June 13, 2000

Security a priority, and neighbours play key role


East Timor, a rugged and mountainous half-island territory just 300 nautical miles off Australia's north-west coast, has long played a strategic role in Australia's defence planning.

January 1942: Australian commandos based in Portuguese East Timor are fighting a brutal guerilla insurgency against a Japanese invasion force. The Australians are ably assisted by friendly Tetum and Mambai chiefs in the fight to contain Japan's southward march.

But the Japanese land reinforcements late in 1942 and the commandos are evacuated, leaving the native allies to their fate. Up to 50,000 Timorese die as a consequence but Tojo's hordes stay on the other side of the Timor Sea and Australians breathe a little easier.

Fast forward to 1975. Faced with domestic problems, Portugal, the occupier of East Timor for about 400 years, suddenly decides to leave its poorest possession, creating a power vacuum that paves the way for an Indonesian invasion the same year.

But Jakarta's dreams of a 27th province founder and after last year's vote for independence, East Timor's rulers are booted out after 24 years of "adverse possession". Before leaving, they ransack and torch the capital and most of the main towns.

Moral outrage by Australians against last year's violence in East Timor was the principal motivation in getting a reluctant Prime Minister John Howard to send in an Australian-led peacekeeping force.

Relations with Indonesia plunged to their lowest level since the 1960s confrontation, but at least Interfet (the International Force in East Timor) was proof that morality and diplomacy are not always incompatible bedfellows as far as East Timor is concerned.

With the Indonesians gone, how important is East Timor to Australian strategic thinking? From a military and security viewpoint, the answer is not very important at all. However, a stable and democratic independent East Timor could depend on generous support from Canberra.

But if East Timor erupts into civil war or goes down the same road as Fiji and the Solomons, there is zero prospect of another Interfet or Australian peacekeeping force landing to restore order. It is up to the East Timorese to keep their own house in order.

The independence leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mr Jose Ramos Horta, East Timor's spokesman on international affairs, has spelt out his vision of future relations with Australia. Unsurprisingly, security issues are a major concern. He would welcome Australian assistance in training a maritime patrol force to safeguard East Timor's vulnerable sea border.

Police and Customs training are two other areas. He did not mention it publicly, but he would also welcome Australian military training. The Australian Defence Force is highly respected in East Timor for the role played in Interfet and their continuing United Nations-mandated garrison duty along the volatile border with Indonesia.

It is a touchy subject. Jakarta's generals would not take kindly to the sight of Australian Army trainers suddenly arriving in Dili. Canberra would also need to be reassured that the armed independence fighters known by their Portugese acronym, Falintil, remain strictly non-aligned and above party politics.

Assurances from East Timorese independence leaders have been vague on this important issue. Falintil has historically been the armed wing of the biggest independence party, Fretilin, but the independence movement grouped under the aegis of the National Council of Timorese Resistance is anything but unified.

The violence last September and more recent turmoil in the South Pacific has convinced the East Timorese of the need for a small, highly-trained defence force. Canada and Britain have indicated they may be able to assist with training.

However, East Timor's best prospects of security probably lie in close and open relations with its neighbours, a fact recognised by Mr Horta.

"Equally or more important than an army, we must develop the closest possible relations with countries in the region, Indonesia included, so no-one feels threatened or uncomfortable," he said.

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