Subject: The desertion of Dili

Also Australia accused of ETimor takeover; The Australian Analysis: Canberra risks accusations of backing a coup



Power Plays

Laurie Oakes

The desertion of Dili

The violence in East Timor follows pressure by the Australian government to send all the peace-keeping troops home.

Alexander Downer did not hesitate back in March when Sydney radio DJ Mike Carlton asked what had been his greatest achievement in 10 years as foreign minister. “I would say certainly East Timor, what we did in East Timor,” Downer replied. It was an unsurprising answer, perhaps ­ except that the problems that have now brought the fledgling nation to the brink of disaster and required the return of Australian troops to battle gangs in the streets of Dili were already becoming evident. East Timor was looking less and less like a triumph of Australian diplomacy, more and more like a failed state ­ hardly something to brag about.

When the violence approached its peak last month, John Howard ­ interviewed by Carlton’s 2UE stablemate John Laws ­ confessed he had seen it coming. “I have watched a deteriorating situation in East Timor for some months,” he said. “This has come as no great surprise ... They got their independence perhaps earlier than they were ready.” Given that Australia’s was a powerful voice in the United Nations process that decided the timing of East Timor’s independence, this came close to an admission of error by the prime minister. But Australia made other errors that it does not admit which made a sizeable contribution to the disaster we now see in East Timor.

It is pretty clear that things started to go off the rails in early 2004, when the UN Security Council was considering an extension of the mandate of UNMISET (the UN Mission in Support of East Timor). The East Timorese government wanted the presence of peace-keeping troops to continue. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan produced a report calling for a reduced peace-keeping operation, but one that would still see 350 soldiers remain. Australia opposed leaving any troops in East Timor, asserting that a UN police presence would be enough.

Downer argued that because Indonesia had accepted East Timor’s independence and armed militias were no longer coming over the border, all that was left was an internal security problem which police could handle. The US and Britain, because they tend to accept that Australia has expertise and clout in its own region, were inclined to accept the Downer view. On ABC radio at the time, Downer played down Annan’s recommendation as simply the result of East Timorese lobbying. The East Timorese government, he said, wanted “some peace-keeping force there for another year just as a security blanket”. Their wishes “have been very much at the top of the secretariat’s mind”. Why weren’t East Timor’s wishes also at the top of Australia’s mind? It is a valid question. Downer’s attitude was astonishingly dismissive and contemptuous, especially given his stance in the current crisis that Australia has to respect the wishes of the East Timorese government.

East Timor’s foreign minister, Jose Ramos-Horta, was clearly dismayed. The Australian quoted him as saying: “We are all quite puzzled as to why Canberra, London and Washington want to differ from everybody else on this issue ... We, the Timorese, maintain a very close working relationship with the UN and they listen to us. Certain countries do not seem to think that our views are very relevant.” Ouch!

Annan argued that further military assistance would make a crucial difference. Peace-keepers would maintain security and help the development of judicial and administrative systems and a national police force. “At a time when either calm or instability can become self-reinforcing, it would be advisable to retain a military component ... to reduce the risk of destabilising incidents,” the secretary-general said. What is happening now shows how right Ramos-Horta and Annan were, and how wrong the Australian government was.

As it turned out, the East Timor government had a win in 2004 ­ but in 2005 Australia’s view prevailed and Annan and Ramos-Horta lost out. Annan wanted a 12-month extension of the peace-keepers, with a force of 179 troops. Instead, peace-keeping was abandoned by the UN and all that was left in East Timor was what Australia’s foreign affairs department calls a “special political mission”. Labor foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd issued a press statement at the time headed: “Are Howard and Downer now cutting and running from East Timor?” Given the current mess, the decision was obviously a grave mistake. Within six months, East Timor saw the first major outbreaks of dissent.

Comparisons can be drawn with Australia’s role in the Solomon Islands. A lot of boasting goes on ­ or did before the riots in Honiara earlier this year ­ about Australia’s leading role in the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands when law and order broke down in 2003. But the government does not mention that it was approached to help put together a five-nation Commonwealth police force for the Solomons three years earlier, before the problem reached crisis point and when a considerably smaller operation than RAMSI would probably have done the job. The request was made by the then prime minister of the Solomons via a visiting Australian parliamentary delegation, and backed by the opposition leader. A delegation member, Labor’s Duncan Kerr, wrote a detailed report on the discussions and submitted it to Downer. Nothing happened.

Howard’s talks with the Bush administration during his recent visit to Washington included the situation in East Timor, the Solomons and the region generally. “I indicated that this was an area where Australia accepted a major responsibility, a lead responsibility,” Howard said later. If Australia is to take such a lead, however, more listening ­ and perhaps less swagger ­ would not go astray.


Agence France-Presse Saturday, June 24, 2006

Australia accused of ETimor takeover

A RETIRED Portuguese general who once commanded a UN force in East Timor claimed that Australia had provoked the crisis there in order to take control of the fledgling country.

"What interests the Australians most is oil and gas," Alfredo Assuncao said in an interview with the Portuguese newspaper Jornal de Noticias.

"So what better way to control these enormously rich resources than to be physically present and control the country's political system?" said Mr Assuncao, who was chief of staff of a UN peacekeeping force in East Timor in 2000-01.

More than 2200 troops and police from Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Portugal are currently in the former Portuguese colony struggling to restore order after an explosion of violence triggered by East Timor Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri's decision in March to sack 600 soldiers.

Dr Alkatiri is locked in a power struggle with President Xanana Gusmao.

Describing Australia as "the main enemy of the country," Mr Assuncao said the Australians had always wanted to "control everything and everyone" in East Timor and had been frustrated in this only because Mr Gusmao and Dr Alkatiri had previously shown a united front.

"But the breakup of this union is opening the way for them to take control of the country," the newspaper quoted him as saying.

Australia was trying to get rid of Dr Alkatiri "and anyone else putting East Timor interests above the ambitions of its neighbours," he said.

After the departure of the Portuguese, East Timor was occupied by Indonesia between 1975 and 1999, then came under direct UN administration until independence in 2002.

Though the poorest country of Southeast Asia, it has vast reserves of oil and gas beneath the Timor Sea. Last January, East Timor and Australia signed a deal to share development of these fields following years of negotiation.

Also Friday, Portuguese Secretary of State for European Affairs Fernando Neves said: "Australia should not get involved in the domestic affairs of East Timor. Neither Australia, nor Portugal.

"Institutional questions in East Timor must be settled by the East Timorese," Mr Neves added.

Canberra and Lisbon have disagreed previously over their presence in East Timor.

Earlier this month Portugal initially refused to put members of its National Republican Guard under the command of Australian forces in the country until an agreement was reached.

Meanwhile the Portuguese Communist Party in a statement released Friday accused Australia of being an "occupation force" in East Timor.


The Australian Saturday, June 24, 2006


Canberra risks accusations of backing a coup

Mark Dodd

AUSTRALIA has allowed itself to appear like a regional power that has given the green light to a slow-motion coup.

Portugal, a close friend of the man under pressure, Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, all but accused Australia of trying to interfere, offering a stark warning "not get involved in the domestic affairs".

And when the man who spoke daily with Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, Jose Ramos Horta, also provided a regular nightly commentary on the ABC and then acted in defiance of his own cabinet, Canberra bolstered the unseating of a government.

The Howard Government was aware of the danger. Ministers and advisers spoke of being careful not to be seen as taking sides, and belatedly sent out a strong public message that the fledgling state had to sort out its internal affairs.

But perhaps by listening too long to the voices that were popular in the West, such as that of the English-speaking Ramos Horta, it was too late.

Australia's neutrality in keeping the peace has been brought into question. And when Xanana Gusmao takes the arguably irresponsible approach of encouraging protesters to defy the Government, knowing that Australian forces will prevent things getting out of control, the questions only increase.

Early optimism that the country's brawling politicians could reach an accord has evaporated. Sadly, East Timor is more divided than ever, and the worsening political crisis threatens to draw Australia in even further.

Images of Australian special-forces soldiers escorting disgraced former interior minister Rogerio Lobato into custody gave rise to speculation that Canberra's motives go farther than the stated aim of restoring law and order in Dili. Alkatiri certainly thinks his political enemies are using the presence of Australian troops in East Timor to their advantage.

The Howard Government had two main fears: the public one that violence would escalate and our troops would get involved, and the private one that Timorese politicians would attempt to use Australia in their power struggles.

Downer repeatedly said it was up to East Timor's political leaders to resolve their differences. He insisted he had never given his private views to any of his East Timorese counterparts. But Portugal has its suspicions, with the Secretary of State for European Affairs insisting last night: "Australia should not get involved in the domestic affairs of East Timor. Neither Australia, nor Portugal."

Portugal has differed with Australia over the political crisis.

But by using stories in the Australian media to put pressure on Alkatiri, and employing our troops to arrest Lobato, Canberra's ability to keep a distance appears to have been compromised.

And the longer East Timor's crisis draws out, the more likely it is that accusing fingers will be pointed at Australia for meddling in its affairs.

--------------- Joyo Indonesia News Service

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