Subject: JIR: East Timor prepares for post- independence security threats

Jane's Intelligence Review October 1, 2001

East Timor prepares for post- independence security threats

Tom Fawthrop and Paul Harris

Formally recognising the continued security threats to East Timor, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said on 26 July: "There is concern that some militia elements have adopted a strategy of lying low until independence in the belief that the international military peacekeeping force will be removed from East Timor. There will be a need for a UN force to continue..." The UN force, accordingly, will continue its mission and "be deployed at current strength on the border [with West Timor] and in the isolated Oecussi enclave."

The East Timor Defence Force (ETDF), currently being trained by officers from Australia, New Zealand, Portugal and South Korea, will not assume full responsibility for the defence of its borders for at least one or two years after independence.

Creating a defence force in East Timor has been part and parcel of building up new institutions - a civil service, a judiciary, a police force, and a democratic government - after the Indonesian colonial-style administration collapsed with the liberation of the territory.

The UN Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET) at first wanted to disarm the approximately 1,700 Falintil guerrillas who had opposed Indonesian rule since the 1975 invasion (see JIR, July 2000, pp26-27). However, having come to respect their discipline and commitment, the UN has selected 650 Falintil members as the backbone of the ETDF. The force will be commanded by a former Falintil commander, the now Brigadier General Matan Ruak.

Roque Rodrigues, the most senior East Timorese in the Office of Defence Forward Development within UNTAET, said: "We thought a gendarmerie would be enough, but the events of September [1999] forced us to reconsider. It was clear Indonesian intelligence was behind the militias and that there was TNI (Indonesian military) involvement. Indonesia is in transition towards democracy. Having in mind the volatility of the situation, we need to have a defence force: small, effective and subordinate to democratically elected political power... Falantil are our heroes. It is unacceptable to disarm them... Falantil offered to become the core of the future ETDF."

Last year, the UN commissioned London University's King's College to provide a strategic analysis of the territory's post-independence defence needs. The main thrust of the final report advocated a cost- effective sustainable land force of two active and two reserve battalions consisting of 3,000 personnel in total. Australia and other nations contributing to UN peacekeeping forces in Timor endorsed this light infantry model, a concept based on stringent budgetary constraints taking into account East Timor's current national budget of US$65 million and limited commitments from donor nations.

According to the retired US general seconded by the US State Department to handle military planning, East Timor's "military strategy will be defensive, capable of defeating small-scale incursions and delaying a larger force until external assistance arrives... The ETDF will exist to defend East Timor, its people and territory." There will also be a commitment to contribute to regional security. The potential intruders are not identified but, in the last week of July, a sergeant in the Indonesian military was shot dead by a UN peacekeeper as he crossed over into East Timor. Although in civilian clothes, he was armed. Commenting on the shooting, West Timor military chief, Major General William da Costa, observed: "Officially, a clear border has yet to be set up. The existing border is based on a map made by Portugal."

Security threats

Good relations with Indonesia are seen as indispensable to an independent East Timor being left in peace to develop its new society, but there remain many controversial issues arising from the war and liberation still to be resolved. Fretilin, the party that has emerged the decisive winner of East Timor's election for a constituent assembly, has called for Indonesian reparations of $700 million for the devastation inflicted by the TNI's orchestration of militia violence in September 1999. There is also a growing clamour among East Timorese community leaders and NGO leaders for Indonesian generals named by the KPP-HAM Indonesian Human Rights Commission as implicated in the plot against East Timor, to be indicted by an international tribunal.

Since UN peacekeeping forces moved into East Timor, the main security threat has come from two borders: the frontier between Indonesian-controlled West Timor and the border with the enclave of Oecussi that is surrounded by West Timor and only permits direct access to the rest of East Timor by sea. Nici Dahrendorf, who authored the King's College report and is UNTAET's national security advisor, confirmed that Indonesian military units based in West Timor continue to support the pro-Jakarta militias. In spite of promises from Jakarta to disband all militias, they continue to run refugee camps and stage occasional cross-border raids in an attempt to destabilise East Timor.

Jose Ramos-Horta, who leads the East Timorese foreign affairs department under UNTAET, told JIR: "I firmly believe that [Indonesian] President Megawati will deal more firmly with the militias than her predecessor, she is in a stronger position." But, if the militias were to attack: "Our defence forces can handle the threat, we have a long history of resistance and inflicted huge casualties on the Indonesian army."

Defending Oecussi may present the greatest problems. If East Timor is to retain control of the enclave, surrounded on three sides by West Timor, either the UN has to achieve a major breakthrough in negotiations over the land border, or improve the only direct access by sea. The only credible defence of Oecussi depends on an effective naval capability, and East Timorese leaders involved in defence matters are dismayed that their desire for a modest naval force, based essentially on coastguard patrols, has hardly figured at all in the defence plans envisaged by the UN's military advisors.

Southeast Asia is a maritime region of strategically important sea lanes. East Timorese waters are particularly rich in marine life, and receiving increasing attention from Japanese, Taiwanese and Indonesian trawlers. General Matan Ruak firmly asserts that: "Every day there are more than 100 incursions from illegal fishing boats in our waters. We need a naval component to protect our fishermen and our natural resources. With or without UN help, we will have one." The head of the DFTL naval detachment, Captain Alfredo Reinado, commented that: "The UN knows all about these illegal fishing boats, but does nothing about it. I am not happy they are limiting our capacity. We know we need something better (than only two patrol boats)."

Roque Rodriguez says that: "Portugal is the only country to support our need for a naval component, the other countries keep telling us that it is too expensive. This is very unhelpful advice."

The UN guidelines for the DFTL are budget-driven and all plans are judged by the yardstick of sustainability by this tiny new nation. The total defence cost for 2001-2 has been budgeted at $2,851,433 to be paid for by donor countries. The cost to East Timorese sovereignty, the cost of not possessing the naval capability to protect its Exclusive Economic Zone, has yet to be calculated.

In addition to protecting its own interests, Jose Ramos-Horta pointed out: "As an island state we also have an obligation to the region to intercept human trafficking, drug trafficking and piracy. If the seas are completely open and uncontrolled, then we actually become a haven for piracy. So I find it surprising that some countries, our neighbours, objected to us having a modest patrol fleet."

The neighbours referred to include Australia, New Zealand, and ASEAN members Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. All of them play some supportive role in training land forces, but Portugal is the sole nation to take an interest in the defence of East Timorese coastal waters.

Internal security

For the moment, internal security is in the hands of UNCIVPOL Police Commissioner Jose Luis da Costa, who heads up a force of 1,400 international police in East Timor. He became commissioner in May 2000 after four international missions in the Balkans.

According to Commissioner Da Costa: "Things can escalate out of hand here very quickly," and he points to the example of a major disturbance on 12 March in the village of Viqueqe. A fight between two schoolboys escalated into a full-scale battle between two martial arts groups which, in turn, led to the deaths of two people, the burning of 50 houses and serious injury to dozens of people. UNCIVPOL officers on the ground were unable to contain the violence, which involved up to 800 people, and ran on out of hand until the arrival of a 120-strong Rapid Response Unit (RRU) from the Jordanian Police.

Most disturbingly, Da Costa has established participation in this violence by political groups, like Republica Democratica Loroe Sae, which seeks reintegration with Indonesia and has support from across the border in West Timor and is, in turn, allied with martial arts groups. Men with military backpack radios and walkie-talkies were seen to be directing the violence. The capacity of UNCIVPOL to deal with such incidents is severely limited. There are just two RRUs in country which have both technical and psychological training. However, more than two incidents occurring simultaneously would effectively lead to system breakdown without intervention of UN soldiers. There were several similar incidents, although on a smaller scale, in March and May.

The other incident which has most alarmed Da Costa was the "possible attempt" on the life of independence leader Xanana Gusmao in Dili on 7 March. Da Costa says both incidents "are related and were manipulated". He says it is "easy to manipulate crowds here... there is a habit of taking revenge and a strong sense of solidarity," which leads to events quickly spiralling out of control: "A simple dispute can be manipulated and become a major security issue," he says.

Independent security

The UN is already starting to downsize its major East Timor peacekeeping operation. By the end of the year, the five battalions in the eastern sector will be scaled down to two as part of the countdown to independence next April. New York still has to take a final decision in consultation with East Timorese leaders on the size of UN forces needed after independence to deter militia infiltration from the West Timor border, but two to three battalions, including Australian and Portuguese units, are likely to remain for one or two years until all the 1,500 East Timorese regulars are trained and ready to take over.

Among the Australian and Portuguese officers engaged in the training programme, there is an unusual degree of consensus about the calibre and good discipline of Falintil fighters. Australia's top officer at the Metinaro Academy, Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Hull, was particularly effusive in his praise of Brigadier General Ruak: "I have worked in 14 foreign countries. General Matan Ruak was originally a poor student, but he has become a man of great vision and perception, who wants to keep his army out of business and out of politics."

Tom Fawthrop is a journalist specialising in Southeast Asian affairs. He is based in Phnom Penh. Paul Harris is a correspondent who covers global conflict and insurgency.

GRAPHIC: Photograph 1, A Portuguese major awards insignia to one of the first 247 soldiers of the East Timor Defence Force during a presentation ceremony on 21 June 2001 in Dili. (Source: PA News); Photograph 2, East Timorese defence force troops march to their new barracks in Metinaro, near the capital Dili, on 6 July 2001. This was a final pull-out from the mountains where as guerrilla group, Falintil, they resisted the Indonesian occupation of the territory from 1975 to 1999. (Source: PA News)

Jane's Intelligence Review October 1, 2001


Total size: 3,000 soldiers - 1,500 regulars and 1,500 reservists.

Structure: four battalions of light infantry (two active, two reserves).

Equipment: 1,200 M-16 A2 rifles, 75 M-203, 50 Colt-45 pistols, 75 Minima LSW light support weapons, 75 machine guns.

Naval component: Two Albatross-class patrol boats donated by Portugal and equipped with 12.7mm fixed machine-guns. About 150 men are being trained for coastguard patrols.


The USA has agreed to sell 1,200 M-16A2 assault rifles, 75 M-203 assault rifles with combination grenade launchers, and 50 .45 calibre Colt hand guns. The weaponry has not been supplied directly, but via the UN: it is illegal under US law to supply armaments to a 'non-state'. Belgium is supplying 75 Minimi LMGs. Older Australian- supplied versions of the M-16 are currently being used in training and will be returned after arrival of the US shipment; meantime, further supplies of reconditioned M-16s arrived in East Timor from Australia in the last week of July.

Uniforms have been gifted by the Portuguese. Webbing, radios and GPS equipment will be supplied by Australia. Fifty vehicles, including trucks, are coming from Italy. There are still some items on the commanders' wish list: specifically, light mortars, APCs, Landrover- type vehicles, ambulances and staff cars.

In June, an Australian-built training complex and barracks was opened at Metanaro, 40km outside Dili. The Metanaro facility incorporates barracks, lecture facilities, conference rooms, and an armoury housed within metal shipping containers. It reputedly involves an investment of US$2.5 million and is a gift from the Australian government.


The two major donor nations, Australia and Portugal, are sharing the training of the first batch of 625 recruits drawn entirely from the former Falintil guerrilla forces now officially disbanded. Additional battalions will be non-Falintil and recruited nationwide. The first ETDF graduates - 247 in number - passed out at the end of June. UNTAET expects the force to be built up to battalion strength of around 600 by March 2002. At full strength, the ETDF will comprise 3,000 men and women under arms with a regular force of two battalions totalling 1,500.

Training is being carried out by an international team. Portuguese soldiers have been carrying out basic training. New Zealand is handling weapons training and a small team of South Koreans are instructing in self defence and fitness.

The new officers of ETDF are grateful to their patrons. 'Australia and Portugal have shown themselves to be our friends. We are grateful for their support and [so] are willing to accept their ideas for the moment,' says Colonel Lere, commander of the first provisional battalion. However, there are complaints about being taught by the armies of at least four different countries: not just the differences in equipment, but also training can be confusing for the hundreds of recruits who have signed up with remarkable enthusiasm - without service contracts or any agreed payment.

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