Subject: Yomiuri: SDF vanguard in E. Timor

April 8 2002

SDF vanguard in E. Timor

Kenichi Okumura Yomiuri Shimbun Correspondent

Members of the Ground Self-Defense Force have been arriving in East Timor to start the SDF's U.N. peacekeeping mission there in support of the territory's full independence in May.

By mid-April, about 680 GSDF members are expected to be in East Timor, marking the largest peacekeeping mission undertaken by the SDF, surpassing a similar U.N. mission in Cambodia in 1992 in terms of the size of the force deployed.

It is also the first dispatch of the SDF on a U.N. peacekeeping mission since conditions on the use of weapons by SDF personnel were relaxed by the revision of the U.N. Peacekeeping Activities Cooperation Law late last year.

Though the SDF members are eager to help East Timor gain full independence on May 20, some critics have said that the government should have sent SDF personnel to East Timor earlier. They are also skeptical about whether the SDF mission will truly be effective in helping the people of East Timor.

Though the revision of the peacekeeping law lifted the ban on the SDF's participation in the main parts of U.N. peacekeeping missions, such as maintaining ceasefires, the government did not give a green light for the SDF to join the main mission.

The first GSDF team consisted mainly of soldiers from an engineering battalion based in Hokkaido, who will be in charge of repairing damage to major roads.

Because the work shows Japan's contribution to East Timor in a tangible way, the mission can be viewed as a high-profile job among the military operations overseen by the U.N. Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), even though the work is simple logistic support.

The SDF engineers will be replacing Bangladeshi troops currently working to maintain key roads in East Timor.

A colonel of the Bangladeshi engineering battalion recalled the difficult nature of his group's task.

In the rainy season (October to March), his soldiers were busy repairing roads damaged by landslides and river floods. The battalion had to stand to around the clock during the season, he said.

This GSDF mission is different from previous deployments in that the 680 personnel involved will be stationed in four separate locations. About 110 each will be stationed in Suai and Maliana, near the border with Indonesia, another 120 will be posted in Oecussi--an enclave in West Timor--and about 330 will be stationed in Dili.

Compared with the mission in Cambodia, in which most SDF members were deployed in a single encampment, the difficulties of tasks such as transporting supplies will be drastically larger.

The first job of the 24 members of the SDF's advance contingent was cutting the grass in a field on the coast where the GSDF team will set up camp.

To prepare for the arrival of the main part of the team, they spent two weeks clearing the field, levelling the ground and setting up 55 tents. They will soon begin assembling prefabricated houses.

Six peacekeepers from various countries have been hospitalized since late last year due to dengue fever. Health control for the members will be the most important task for the SDF team.

The SDF members will be forbidden to drink alcohol outside Dili.

The Imperial Japanese Army occupied East Timor for 3-1/2 years during World War II. Japanese soldiers reportedly massacred tens of thousands of residents during the occupation.

Some Timorese have criticized Japan because it has not offered an apology or compensation.

But Lt. Gen. Winai Phattiyakul of the Thai Royal Army, commander of the UNTAET peacekeeping force, was favorably disposed toward the SDF team, saying: "I expect much from the SDF. I think they are highly capable."

However, a senior official of a Japanese company operating in East Timor said, "If private companies hire local residents to implement road repairs, it could help to counter unemployment."

"The (SDF) engineering battalion could have shown its true value, if it had come here when the social and safety conditions were still bad," he said.

There have been no serious reported incidents since July, when a U.N. patrol of New Zealand soldiers was fired on by a man in civilian clothes.

The peacekeepers returned fire, killing the man, who turned out to be an Indonesian soldier.

However, a diplomatic source in Dili said: "More than 100 Indonesian Army officers fled and are hiding near the national border. The situation is still uncertain."

Many of the factors contributing to the area's instability, including the possible return of pro-Jakarta militias to East Timor in the guise of refugees, have not been eliminated.

Due to the revision of the peacekeeping cooperation law, the SDF now can help police the ceasefire and protect VIPs and peacekeepers from other countries if they are "under the control" of the SDF.

However, delicate situations may arise during the actual mission, such as militia disguising themselves as refugees.

There could be cases in which individual SDF members will be forced to make difficult decisions.

UNTAET was established in October 1999 based on a resolution of the U.N. Security Council.

About 6,000 military personnel from 22 countries, including Japan, are deployed in East Timor.

The number is to be scaled down to about 2,000 by mid-May, as East Timor will gain full independence on May 20.

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