Subject: SMH/Age: East Timor's Tiny Army Aims High: Hamish McDonald's report

Sydney Morning Herald April 20, 2002

A new nation builds a new kind of army

Photo: Gutsy ... members of the first battalion during training exercises. Photo: Sam Hendricks

The boot camp at Metinaro is training its second batch of recruits, reports Hamish McDonald.

Dressed in dun-brown overalls and boots, Fitar dos Reis, Gil Nelson Belo and Gulio Freitas line up under the baking afternoon sun to take their place on a mat and practise loading an M-9 machine-gun.

They fit the ammunition belt, cock the firing mechanism, and ease the safety catch as Staff Sergeant Al Peart of the New Zealand Army barks orders in rough Portuguese.

One mistake in the sequence and the recruit does an immediate five push-ups, but these sweating 19- and 20-year-olds say they do not mind. "We want to work at it for our country," Mr Freitas says. "We will accept anything that is handed out," Mr dos Reis adds.

This is the boot camp for East Timor's new regular army, a series of corrugated steel barracks and offices amid red-brown eucalypt-studded hills 20 kilometres east of the capital, Dili.

It is named after Nicolau Lobato, East Timor's first leader of the legendary Falintil guerilla resistance, who was killed in 1978 by the Indonesian invaders. But in this Australian-built training centre the new nation's fighting men say they want a distinct break with the past, and seek to turn out a well-trained regular army that will stay out of politics.

"Falintil stands for the 'Force for the Liberation of Timor Lorosae', so its mission was just that during the time when the Indonesians were here," said the camp's commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Sabika Besse.

The commander was one of the defenders of the western border post of Balibo against the first Indonesian covert attack in October 1975, when five Australian-based television newsmen were killed, and fought on around Viqueque for the rest of the 24-year occupation.

"So as far as I am concerned, on August 30, 1999, [the date of a United Nations-supervised vote in favour of independence] our country achieved liberty," Colonel Sabika said.

"Hence we have changed our name from Falintil to the FDTL [East Timor Defence Force, in Portuguese]. It has a different mission from that of Falintil. It is a defence force, to deter or defeat aggressors."

On the advice of a team from King's College in London, East Timor is setting up a regular army of two light infantry battalions, numbering 1,500 troops overall, with a further 1,500 reservists.

The first battalion underwent its basic training last year, and since January has been stationed in the eastern Los Palos region, where it is taking over security duties as United Nations peacekeepers are withdrawn.

This battalion was largely drawn from younger members of Falintil who passed demanding physical and aptitude tests. The second battalion now being trained at Metinaro are raw recruits straight from high school, with the 267 trainee soldiers (32 of them women) picked from 7000 applicants drawn by prestige and the prospect of the $A163-a-month salary for privates.

The recruits do their very basic training in drill, weapons handling and small-unit tactics under Portuguese officers such as Lieutenant Hugo Fernandes, who this afternoon was watching a group learn about reconnaissance under a shady tree at the back of the camp.

A score of Australian and New Zealand officers help manage the camp and impart specialist skills in armoury, machine-guns and communications as well as the English language, while four South Korean officers teach tae kwon do.

The new force's officers are Falintil veterans like Captain Higino dos Neves, 34, who started helping the guerillas as a messenger and carrier aged eight and carries 22 bits of bullet and shrapnel in his body, or Euphrasia da Silva Pinto Mimenes, who watches over the female recruits.

Only 112 fighters from the original phase of resistance in 1975-83 were still in the field with Falintil when the Indonesians left at the end of 1999, and only 20 of these, such as Colonel Sabika, have transferred into the new defence force.

The new army is being trained in conventional Western fashion. However, its chief, Brigadier-General Taur Matan Ruak, who was the last Falintil commander in succession to the new president-elect, Xanana Gusmao, has organised for platoons to be broken into six-soldier squads. This was the unit found most effective during the resistance years but is about half the size of the smallest patrol for which a European army has tactics.

When fully operational, the defence force will cost the new government about $13.5million a year, which allows fuel for light vehicles and two patrol boats donated by Portugal, but no money for items such as helicopters or armoured troop carriers.

Is the force worth the money, for a government whose total budget will be about $220million a year and whose independence leaders at one time thought of a country, like Costa Rica, without a military at all?

Professor Desmond Ball, of the Australian National University's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, is not worried about the calibre of the defence force.

"Why they have a regular force of 1500 is because this was the minimum acceptable to Falintil in the wake of September-October 1999," Professor Ball said, referring to the rampage by Indonesian-backed militias after the independence vote.

"It's hard to think of any real military contingencies that East Timor's going to face. They're going to be border ones, they're going to be offshore resources, policing of its maritime zone, those sorts of things. And if there is a real military contingency, a regular force of 1500 is not going to make any difference. They're going to have go back to a guerilla operation, which they are good at.

"So a regular military operation doesn't make much sense to me, particularly if they are diverting resources from what are going to be the real issues, which are building up the infrastructure, the police and law enforcement, the judiciary and the education system. I think we've got our priorities skewed."

Professor Ball said that out of $3.9billion Canberra has spent on or committed to East Timor between September 1999 and June 2004, less than 10per cent was devoted to non-military purposes. Defence had the money, while other agencies such as the Federal Police, who saw "big problems" looming in East Timor, had very little.

"In Canberra you've got a defence budget of $11billion, so they can go off and do their job very happily, and you've agencies like AusAID [the civil overseas aid agency] or the police struggling with the crumbs that have fallen off the table."

At Metinaro, Colonel Sabika is adamant the new force can play an effective role in defence and will not become a burden to East Timor.

"We obviously wouldn't be able to blockade aggressors at the border or defeat them at the border, but we would hope to retard their progress, until hopefully - and we have faith in the United Nations and our neighbour countries - that they would then be able to come and help us," he said.

"The force is of the people, for the people, and when there is no military task to do we are not just going to have the soldiers living in barracks. If there are roads to build or if they need help with reconstruction, then of course the force could be involved with that.

"We will guard against this attitude of eat-sleep, eat-sleep. In the jungle we would say that about the Indonesian forces. We will also look at having our own gardens, to grow food, so that we can at least somewhat sustain ourselves, and reduce the burden on the budget."

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