Subject: The Economist: East Timor's new army - Former guerrillas turn regular

The Economist June 14, 2001

East Timor's new army

Former guerrillas turn regular

photo: Ready to fight

As talks on reconciliation between its independence heroes and their pro-Indonesia militia foes get nowhere, East Timor has given up the idea of turning itself into an Asian Costa Rica, with only a police force and no standing army. Instead, in the hill town of Aileu, the first recruits of the new East Timor Defence Force are now going through their paces. Come independence, which is expected later this year or early in 2002, this force of ex-guerrillas will have to defend the sensitive border with West Timor, where the militiamen are waiting just over the hill.

The first batch started training in February, most of them drawn from East Timor's old resistance army, Falintil. They still carry that name on their uniforms for old time's sake, but these days they are wearing full military dress. Taur Matan Ruak, Falintil's former chief, has been appointed a brigadier-general and is technically in command, although he has Australian and American advisers. The course, including five weeks' basic training and instruction in human rights, is run by the Portuguese army.

Strangely, some of the nearly 700 recruits are former Timorese soldiers who once served in the Indonesian army. There is even one from the Kopassus special forces and one from the Kostrad strategic reserve, two units widely associated with atrocities in East Timor and elsewhere. Some of the Timorese soldiers who joined Indonesia's army got a terrible name for barbarity against their own people, but others leaked useful inside information to the guerrillas. Many voted for independence in the 1999 referendum.

Their barracks are simple and the pay next to nothing, but there is no doubting their commitment. The average age is 42, two years older than Major Jose Afonso, the Portuguese chief trainer. The oldest is 56. The men know how to kill and have their own style of discipline, but they are not used to the formalities and rigours of a modern army. They did not have ranks in the jungles, where many of them spent the entire 24 years of occupation, just "commanders" and "troops", and now they are having to learn correct safety procedures for their weapons.

Ultimately, the force will be 3,000 strong: 1,500 regulars and 1,500 reserves. The current recruits include 250 officer candidates, selected by the Portuguese trainers. Aileu was chosen as a base because Falintil was founded there in the mid-1970s and encamped there before the 1999 vote. Although wrecked by the militias like the rest of East Timor, for Falintil it is a sanctuary.

The UN advisers putting the army together say they have deliberately structured it as a defensive force that will be able to see off militia incursions. There have been a series of these, in some of which UN peacekeepers have been killed. The force is unlikely to stop another full-scale invasion. In that event, its task would be to hold off until help arrived. The Timorese presume it would, in contrast to 1975 when the West gave tacit approval to Indonesia's invasion. But most East Timorese think it is unlikely that Indonesia will ever come again. The first invasion caused it huge problems, international opprobrium and vast expense. And as the country threatens to disintegrate, its army has its hands full enough already.


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