Subject: Age: E. Timor: Jungle rebels adapt to army routine
also: Cleansing ritual for Balibo house
The Age September 6, 2003
Jungle rebels adapt to army routine
Members of the Defence Forces of East Timor, once guerillas, now training with international help to be professional soldiers.
East Timor guerillas who fought for freedom change tactics, but stay true to their purpose. Jill Jolliffe reports.
In the run-up to the UN's military withdrawal from East Timor in June next year, Che Guevara hairstyles are giving way to crew cuts as East Timor's former guerillas become professional soldiers.
Trained by international instructors, the defence forces of East Timor will boast two army battalions and a small naval contingent to defend the nation born in May 2002. It seems a tiny force to defend a territory that has seen such extreme military violence in recent decades, but its leaders are confident of its power.
After Indonesia invaded in 1975, East Timor's resistance was conducted by Falintil, the Armed Forces for the Liberation of Independent East Timor, frequently dismissed as a rag-tag bandit force. After the historic UN-supervised vote for independence in August 1999, its guerillas became the heroes of the day.
Among the most flamboyant was former hotel waiter Taur Matan Ruak. Bushy-haired, he packed a Smith and Wesson pistol and had not seen a regular bed for 24 years, being constantly on the move in the jungle. Today, he is spruce and clean shaven and bears the insignia of Brigadier-General. At his command post in Dili he said he had no yearning for those harsh years.
"Guerillas are people with specific aims", he stated. "We realised the first of those and are now in a new phase.
"It's one thing to wage guerilla war, another to be a professional army. We have to change mentalities and train new people but we have a lot of international help," he said.
The new defence model was chosen after a panel involving Falintil and international experts met at King's College in London in 2000. Of three options discussed, a light infantry force of 1500 soldiers and 1500 volunteer reservists was chosen, with Falintil soldiers as the core of the army.
Brigadier Ruak is happy with the result and the quality of his soldiers' training. Combining guerilla veterans with young recruits works well, contributing to high morale. Their basic weapon is the American M16 rifle, but the commander worries that other equipment is spread thin, a harsh reality of post-independence budget restraints.
At Metinaro training base, 25 kilometres east of Dili, the second battalion, led by Colonel Aluk Decar (like many officers he retains his nom de guerre), is completing its training under Australian, New Zealand and Portuguese instructors. The 600 recruits of the first battalion graduated in December 2001 and are deployed in eastern Lospalos, also under an ex-jungle fighter, Colonel Falur Rate Laek.
Colonel Pedro commands Metinaro. As a teenager he pioneered the urban uprising of the late 1980s, and was tortured for organising a demonstration when the Pope visited East Timor. The Indonesians allowed him to leave for Portugal, but before departure he met resistance commander Xanana Gusmao (now President) in the mountains, forging a link between students and guerillas.
In Portugal, he undertook commando training, then lived briefly in Melbourne before rejoining the guerillas in their last days of struggle.
The threats facing East Timor are real. The ex-militiamen who laid East Timor to waste in 1999 are still active in West Timorese camps - two border incursions earlier this year killed about nine people.
Colonel Pedro said that as a small country between Indonesia and Australia, skilful diplomacy rather than military power is East Timor's best security guarantee. Not that he underestimates his soldiers: "Our 1500 can stop, destroy or capture any infiltrators", he said. "We have the confidence of the population. Our arms are light arms, but they're of good quality".
Creating the new defence force has had its problems. Foremost is the plight of ex-guerillas rejected on health or other grounds. Forgotten by the politicians, they are a dissident force for whom members of the new army do not disguise their sympathy. A related issue is the difficulty of teaching neutrality to soldiers formerly inspired by politics.
There was an outcry earlier this year when they began hunting militia infiltrators, adopting police roles just as Indonesia's special forces had done.
The army recently mobilised for a special healing task, collecting the remains of guerillas buried in bush graves, brought with honours to a former jungle headquarters at We Mori on August 20, a date now proudly designated as Falintil Day.