Subject: AsiaTimes: Aussies outstay their East Timor welcome

Asia Times

Feb 5, 2008

Aussies outstay their East Timor welcome

By Loro Horta

DILI - Since the 2006 deployment of Australian peacekeeping troops to East Timor, the Australian Defense Force (ADF) has been confronted with a persistent anti-Australian sentiment from large sections of the population. How did a peacekeeping force that was once welcomed as a national liberator for East Timor from 24 years of brutal Indonesian occupation so quickly find itself unwelcome?

Australia first helped to rescue East Timor in 1999, when it contributed nearly half of the 9,900 troops to the United Nations authorized International Force for East Timor, or INTERFET, which then neutralized the Indonesia-backed paramilitary gangs which raped and pillaged the island after it voted for independence from Jakarta in a national referendum.

The current ADF contingent was deployed with East Timorese government permission in May 2006, as part of an Australian-led International Stabilization Force (ISF) tasked with containing another spasm of violence that erupted from a schism inside the Timor Leste Defense Force (FDTL). The ISF's main unit, the ANZAC Battle Group, currently consists of about 780 Australian and 170 New Zealand soldiers.

That foreign presence has largely restored stability and was crucial to the successful holding of presidential elections in 2007, which were won by Jose Ramos Horta. Horta told voters on the campaign trail that he supported the continued presence of the Australian-led forces for at least five years, or until the FDTL, which was decimated by the 2006 violence, becomes unified along regional lines and is technically capable enough to take sole responsibility for national security.

The FDTL now receives support from a host of donor countries, including Australia, China, Portugal and Brazil. Opposition candidates, however, had on the 2007 campaign trail called for the ISF to be withdrawn as soon as possible, arguing that the foreign armed presence undermined the new nation's hard-earned sovereignty. Those calls are now increasing in pitch as certain ADF personnel, particularly its young privates, act in ways that undermine the peacekeeping force's image.

According to observers, many ADF personnel have shown an utter lack of respect for local customs and have on several occasions insulted some of the country's highest government officials. The first serious incident took place in October 2006 when the ADF established various checkpoints around the FDTL's headquarters.

Then, FDTL Commander Brigadier General Taur Matan Ruak was prevented at gun point from leaving his own headquarters, with the ADF insisting to search him before he was allowed to leave. He was eventually allowed to pass, but the humiliation at the hands of a teenaged Australian corporal did tremendous damage to the ADF's image among the FDTL's rank and file.

Soon after the standoff with the FDTL's commander, Australian soldiers without cause stripped a Timorese police inspector out of his uniform in the middle of one of Dili's most public places, leaving the officer literally in his underwear. More gravely, they also stand accused on at least one occasion of interrupting the parliamentary process.

In the sub-district of Letfo, where the defense and security commission of the national Parliament was meeting with authorities, an Australian officer who insisted on talking with the local police commander, barged into the meeting. When member of Parliament Davide Ximenes requested that the Australian officer leave the room and wait outside for the meeting to end, the Australian officer reportedly began to scream at the members.

In the end, the situation was resolved when a Brazilian officer dragged the Australian officer out of the meeting room and a Chinese officer calmed the largely built and hot-tempered Ximenes. Following the incident, the head of the United Nations mission to East Timor, Indian diplomat Atul Kare, sent a letter of apology to the national Parliament, while no words of remorse ever came from the ADF or the Australian Embassy.

Other minor issues have added to the ADF's image problem. In October 2006, the ADF drove four armored personnel carriers into the Cristo Rei beach coral reef, a protected marine with unique coral formations, to the outrage of even some Australian non-governmental organizations. Meanwhile, ADF personnel often drive their armored cars at high speed in heavily populated areas, throwing up dust in storefronts and at passerby, say locals. Their reckless behavior has even led to complaints from Australian diplomats based in Dili

The clearest example of the ADF's sometimes reckless behavior was seen in early January. Horta's convoy, made up of more than 10 vehicles, was on its way back to the capital from the western region of the island when it was nearly overrun by two ADF vehicles which failed to stop at the roadside to make way for the presidential convoy. Three Australian citizens were at the time traveling with the president, including an ADF major.

To be sure, the majority of Australian troops in East Timor have done a laudable and professional job. That includes the bravery of Corporal Andrew Wratten, who blew the whistle on the sexual abuse of Timorese young boys by Jordanian peacekeepers in the town of Ocussi. The corporal reportedly had to be evacuated to Australia under armed escort to prevent the Jordanian soldiers from taking revenge.

There are countless other cases of the ADF's honorable conduct, such as the case of Major General Mike Smith, who served in the territory as brigadier and since the crisis of May 2006 greatly assisted the war-torn nation in his capacity as head of AUSAID. The current Australian commander in Timor, Brigadier Peter Hutchison, has been an improvement over his predecessors and shows that with greater discipline these issues can be addressed. Hutchison's decision to begin purchasing basic foodstuffs and other supplies from local farmers and shops instead of importing them from Australia has given much needed income to the impoverished local population and helped with the ADF's image problem. His tougher disciplinary style has recently reduced cases of ADF reckless driving, public drunkenness and overall rude behavior.

The great majority of Australian military personnel have acted with honor and professionalism while on service in East Timor. However, the arrogant behavior of a small minority has broadly undermined the ADF's image in the eyes of the Timorese population. While the current wave of anti-Australian sentiment is the result of many factors - some of which, to be fair, are beyond the ADF's control - addressing the issues over which they have command is crucial for the continued success of their mission.

Due to its geographical proximity to Australia and the two countries' shared store of natural gas resources, East Timor and its stability will always be of strategic importance to Canberra. As such, Australia should not neglect the way it exercises its hard and soft power inside the newly formed country.

While some of the incidents have been minor and no doubt the result of cultural misunderstandings, they have the potential to create serious tensions between the neighboring nations. As the Australian saying warns, "From little things, big things grow."

Loro Horta is a research associate fellow at the S Rajartnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technology University, Singapore and a visiting scholar at the Center for International Security Studies, Sydney University, Australia. He formerly worked as an advisor to the Timor-Leste Defense Department.

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