Subject: SMH: The big question now is does the country actually need an army?

Sydney Morning Herald

The big question now is does the country actually need an army?

Hamish McDonald July 1, 2006

WHILE Dili went through another round of arson and rampages this week, the army whose split caused the crisis was dutifully sitting things out in its four barracks around the country.

When things settle down, East Timor's leaders and international aid donors will be faced again with the problem of what to do about the country's defence force.

It will be the last chance to weigh perhaps the most courageous option of all: to abolish the army and join the small number of nations, like Costa Rica and the most stable of the Pacific Islands states, that rely on police for their security.

This was the dream of Jose Ramos Horta, now the Foreign Minister, when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize along with Bishop Carlos Belo in 1996. However, the ugliness of Indonesia's exit in 1999, and what seemed a militia threat across the border, banished that thought.

Several years later, there is no sign of any move from Indonesian Timor to undermine the new nation, even with the latest opportunity. Another stated aim of having an army - to employ otherwise restive members of the former armed resistance, Falantil - still left many former Falantil fighters, like those featured in the recent ABC Four Corners program, available to cause trouble.

Possibly the Falantil-East Timor Defence Force will vanish of its own accord. In March it dismissed 591 of its youngest and best-educated soldiers after they went on strike over petty grievances, led by a junior officer whose promotion was blocked because of a smuggling offence.

The force is now down to about 800 men, but perhaps 200 to 400 of these remaining troops may be induced to retire in August when an extraordinarily generous pension scheme is due to start for veterans of the anti-Indonesian armed resistance.

The scheme applies to those with at least three years' participation in the guerilla struggle and would not include the rush of volunteers when it became apparent Indonesia's grip was weakening (numbers rose from 500 to 600 fighters in 1996 to 1600 by October 1999 when Indonesia left).

With pensions set at three times the minimum wage of $US85 ($115) a month in many cases, and compared with the $US120 a month basic soldier's wage, the incentive is strong to abandon the humdrum life in an army.

The depleted ranks may help to facilitate a bold decision: either integrate the Falantil remnant into the national police force, or go for a far more professional and well-managed military force along the lines of the Fijian model. In a small country with weak civilian institutions, it continues the risk of a coup d'etat, but it at least has the benefit of being an export earner.

Fiji's active army of 2950 soldiers has two of its six infantry battalions on the United Nations' payroll in the Middle East, earning respectable US dollars.

Another 2000 Fijians are serving in the British Army, although not in their own distinct units like the Gurkhas. Another 1000 or so Fijians are thought to be working in Iraq for private security contractors.

The remittance flow is considerable for ethnic Fijian communities, although the military budget is still heavy for such a small economy. Ways are being sought to get more return on the investment, such as by employing army engineers in local projects.

The lacklustre third way has been shown by the Papua New Guinea Defence Force, formed from the two Pacific Islands Regiments raised by the Australian Army before independence in 1975.

Ill-disciplined, badly trained and equipped, and with officers being drawn into business and politics, the 4300-strong force had become a largely useless burden on the state a quarter of a century later, unable to patrol borders or maritime resources, ineffective against the Bougainville secessionists and a threat only to its own government.

Conceivably, Australia and New Zealand could bring the East Timorese and PNG forces up to Fijian standard and build a regional security network, as well as opening avenues for their soldiers in UN peacekeeping operations.

As a policy (the implementation is another matter), this follows the line of least resistance. But after spending nearly $40 million on the East Timor Defence Force, Canberra might ask the Timorese to seriously consider whether they need an army at all.


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