Subject: Australia and E. Timor: Midwife at the Birth of a New Nation

The Australian Saturday, January 3, 2004

excerpt: An unspoken concern is that maintaining Australian combat troops in East Timor will reinforce perceptions among Jakarta's political elite that Australia wants a permanent military base in the country.


Australia in East Timor: A Sense of Duty

In less than 20 weeks Australia's great military adventure in East Timor will be over. As midwife at the birth of a new nation our military commitment has been fundamental.

By Patrick Walters

From the rocky, tree-shaded summit of "Mount Everest", 1980m up in the cool, moist highlands of the Bobinaro ranges in East Timor, Lieutenant-Colonel Glen Babington surveys his domain.

The view from this Australian-manned mountain redoubt sweeps dramatically down a precipitous slope towards the great green gorge of the Maliana pass and away to a broad flood plain stretching away to the northern coast of East Timor.

Far below in the hazy middle distance, beyond the rusty crimson roofs of the town of Maliana, surrounded by green paddy fields, you can see the regular lines of the Australian base at Moleana - the main military base for operations in the western sector of East Timor.

Babington, the tall, lean, youthful commander of the 6th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR), his short-barrelled Steyr automatic rifle slung from his right shoulder, commands the last battalion of Australian peacekeeping troops in East Timor.

In less than 20 weeks Australia's great military adventure in East Timor will be over. From a high of 5700 in late 1999, fewer than 500 Australian servicemen and women remain in the country. At midnight on May 20, when the UN peacekeeping operation officially ends, Australia's largest overseas military commitment since Vietnam will wind up.

A few dozen Australian military trainers and observers will remain in the country, together with police and civilian advisers.

The Moleana base, a small township in itself, with its long lines of prefab cabins, helicopter airfield, massive heavy equipment sheds, electricity generators and sewage system, will be deserted but remain - a physical testament to the $2 billion Australia has spent supporting East Timor since late 1999.

As midwife at the birth of a new nation and principal guardian of the infant East Timor, Australia's military commitment has been fundamental. About 16,000 Australians will have served in East Timor by the time the UN's remaining 1750-strong peace-keeping force withdraws in May.

The all-round capability and professionalism of Australia's defence force has been crucial to the success of the UN Mission of Support for East Timor (UNMISET). Australian troops, which still make up 25 per cent of the total UN peacekeeping force, have earned the gratitude of the Government in Dili and gained the affection of local villagers.

Australia has been the mainstay of East Timor's security since 1999 and the prospective withdrawal of UN peacekeepers has left many Timorese, particularly village communities close to the border with Indonesian-controlled West Timor, deeply apprehensive.

There are still 28,000 Timorese in camps across the border in West Timor, including an estimated 3000 who once belonged to the militia groups that wrought mayhem in East Timor during 1999.

Australia's long-term relationship with East Timor, the UN's 191st member state, promises to be the acid test of Australia's re-found strategic ambition and the Howard Government's expressed willingness to play a more decisive role in regional affairs.

An equivalent challenge requiring skilful, subtle diplomacy will be the management of Indonesia-Australia relations as they affect East Timor. Without the genuine goodwill and co-operation of Jakarta, East Timor's future as an independent state cannot be guaranteed.

The Howard Government's key policy advisers favour a full withdrawal of combat forces. The prevailing wisdom is that Australia has fully discharged its military commitment to East Timor and that the primary security task is internal law and order, regarded as a police task.

An unspoken concern is that maintaining Australian combat troops in East Timor will reinforce perceptions among Jakarta's political elite that Australia wants a permanent military base in the country.

But for the foreseeable future, whether we like it or not, East Timor will rely on Australia as the implicit guarantor of its security. Full membership of ASEAN for East Timor would transform its security outlook, but that essential goal is still years away. For some senior members of ASEAN, East Timor is seen as largely Australia's problem.

Exactly what kind of international security presence will remain beyond the peacekeeping force's withdrawal in May is the subject of a review by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. UN Security Council members take the view that East Timor's security forces - its planned 3000-strong police and 1500-member defence force - will be able to meet the looming security challenges. But, in the view of many well-placed security experts, East Timor remains manifestly incapable of managing its security challenges - internal and external. Both the police and the defence force require far more training to reach minimum levels of competence.

The people of East Timor remain a deeply divided polity with longstanding communal feuds exacerbated by the bitter, divisive legacy of 25 years of Indonesian rule.

The new 500-strong border police and a planned rapid deployment squad conspicuously lack the necessary resources, training and equipment to adequately patrol the still undefined international boundary with West Timor.

"I think we have engineered ourselves into trouble ahead. We simply don't have all the pieces in place," observes a senior Western military source in Dili. "You are going to put untried and extremely poorly led police along the border without good leadership and proper training. They are going to be quick on the trigger and it could lead to very destabilising situations."

"If we don't have (an international) stabilisation force to demonstrate rapid response, they (the militias) won't hesitate. Anybody who thinks the TNI (the Indonesian army) controls the militias is mistaken."

Regional defence expert Allan Behm argues that Australia has no option but to maintain a substantial combat force in East Timor for an indefinite period. This force, Behm says, should act not only as a deterrent against public disorder but also should be capable of dealing with popular unrest.

"What we can't be seen to be doing is simply walking away. We have created a situation where our presence is a palpable guarantee of public safety and the ability of people to go about their daily lives."

Behm says Australia must work towards a broadly based agreement with Jakarta that will guarantee the newly independent nation's long-term security.

In contrast to Indonesia, which will retain a militarised border, East Timor is determined to demilitarise its side, leaving border security in the hands of border police backed up by a small police ready-reaction squad.

Military experts cite tensions between the police and military as another cause for concern about what will happen when the UN departs. A fear is that criminal gangs backed by armed militias based in West Timor will take advantage of the May pullout to establish new fiefdoms across one of the most porous land borders in the world.

East Timor's Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta told The Weekend Australian a fortnight ago that he would like to see at least a company-size Australian combat unit remain in East Timor for another two years in addition to a UN-sponsored international gendarmerie consisting of 300 to 400 highly mobile, well-armed police - a much bigger force than that being contemplated by the UN.

"That essentially would be a psychological element and work as a deterrent," Ramos-Horta says. Although he remains cautiously optimistic about border security and Indonesia's ability to control the militias, Ramos-Horta argues that a continuing UN deterrent force will be vital to ensure national stability and the consolidation of the new Government in Dili.

The governing apparatus of East Timor, less than two years old, remains fragile. The civil service administration and ruling institutions, notably the judiciary, are just beginning.

Worryingly, on the eve of the UN troop pullout, the economy is estimated to have declined by 3 per cent in 2003, with per capita gross domestic product estimated at about $545 - making East Timor one of Asia's poorest nations. Unemployment among urban youth is close to 50 per cent.

East Timor faces a revenue shortfall of $167million during the next three years before oil and gas revenues start to flow from 2007. The puny $9 million defence budget has just been cut and the withdrawal of UN personnel will also hurt the economy.

"There's still a high degree of optimism about independence. The real challenge is managing diminishing expectations," notes one senior diplomatic observer.

Patrick Burgess, the UN's longest serving senior civil servant in East Timor, says although the country has come a long way since 1999, a continuing UN presence will be vital for the next few years.

"The East Timorese have done incredibly well but they have a long way to go," he says. "It is of great symbolic importance to them that the UN remains as an anchor of security. That symbolism is very important."

Burgess warns that the promising security outlook situation on the border could be undone by a premature UN withdrawal and advocates a continuing presence of international peacekeepers along the border for another two years.

"Personally, I would like to see armed troops on the border as a deterrent and also engaged in training their East Timorese counterparts," he says.

The UN Security Council is expected to extend UNMISET beyond the May deadline. A team from New York is due in Dili next week to prepare final recommendations on the exact size and shape of the new mission for Annan. The early indications are that some working assumptions about the UN's security presence may have to be rethought.

Australia is pushing hard in the Security Council for a revised UN mandate beyond May that allows for the deployment of an international gendarmerie (police) as a rapid-reaction force instead of military peacekeepers. The plan would also include up to 60 military observers to assist with border security, together with a core of UN civilian advisers to assist the Government in Dili.

A more enduring Australian army presence will be the trainers of the new East Timor Defence Force. There are 28 defence personnel based in East Timor supporting the new army's two battalions and providing language training. In addition to the army's investment, the Australian Federal Police and AusAID are spending $40million over four years to help train a new Timorese police force.

The Howard Government expects the UN Security Council to sign up to the police gendarmerie but won't accept an extension of the military peacekeeping operation.

"We are happy with some military observers and a police gendarmerie component. But we think there is little need for the peacekeeping force to remain," Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told The Weekend Australian.

Downer is confident about the border security issue, which he discussed with his Indonesian counterpart Hassan Wirayuda in Jakarta last month.

"One of the points I made is that we cannot afford to have a resurgence of militia activity," he says. "The Indonesian military have to be vigilant in stopping militia activity from taking place. There does not seem to be any sign of that at all."

Downer says Australia does not want to deploy troops outside the UN framework, which he acknowledges would not be well regarded in Indonesia. If things go bad, he says, Darwin is only an hour away from Dili.

"To get a consensus in the Security Council to do more than what is currently being proposed would be extremely difficult," he says. "It has been pretty difficult to get the Security Council to agree to do anything more in East Timor."

Japan has also strongly backed an extension of UNMISET beyond May 20 and sees the deployment of its 400-strong army engineering group as a great success story. The Japanese have worked closely with Australian troops in the western sector, building and maintaining roads and water supply points.

In the run-up to May 20, John Howard will keep a close watch on developments on the island of Timor. As the principal architect of Australia's fateful late 1998 volte-face on East Timor, and with his own re-election in the offing, the Prime Minister is keeping an open mind on the extent of Australia's military commitment.

"Our general position is that we will keep forces in East Timor while ever it is necessary," Howard said last week. "We made a big investment of people, a very strong investment in terms of taking a political stand in East Timor, and we don't intend to leave until we are confident that we are leaving behind a stable, united country that has a strong future."

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