Subject: AU: Don't leave Timor before job is done

The Australian

January 6, 2004 Tuesday All-round Country Edition

Don't leave Timor before job is done

AUSTRALIA has made a huge investment in East Timor for which the nation can be proud, but now is not the time to give up on it. From a position just years ago where Indonesian-sponsored militia were shooting and hacking to death supporters of independence, East Timor now has a semblance of order as a free state. Australia's commitment has cost some $2 billion, and Australian troops, at their height 5700 and now scaled back to about 500, have been the backbone of the United Nations force.

However, the new democratic state is a fragile one. Security experts have serious doubts as to whether the planned 3000-strong local police force and 1500-member defence force are adequately developed to counter potential militia threats from across the border. Deep ideological and cultural divisions remain below the surface of the Government. And East Timor is dirt poor, with a life expectancy of only 57 years and 41 per cent of the population below the poverty line.

On May 20, the UN peacekeeping operation officially ends, and most of the remaining Australian troops are due to come home. But UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is calling for an extension of the mandate. Timorese Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta has asked for a company of Australian combat troops to stay on and for an international 'gendarmerie' of about 300 to 400 well-armed, mobile police.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has said he supports a successor mission, but ruled out further substantial Australian troop commitment. He says a 120-strong UN police force with military and police observers would suffice.

Such a policy is risky. The last thing we want is another failed, anarchic state on our doorstep. Australia intervened in the Solomon Islands at its Government's request, for humanitarian reasons and because a collapsing country could become a terrorist haven for banking and passports. After the initial deployment, 600 soldiers were kept on.

If the Timorese Government wants continued support, Australia should back it. Apart from the military component, Australia should provide targeted, project-based aid. The $42.5 million aid package for this financial year is quite sparing compared to the overall investment so far. Along with other UN members, Australia should make available a range of technical advisers. It will require delicate handling of Indonesian sensitivities, but now is not the time to back down.


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