Subject: AU: Concern at Timor army conscription

The Australian

Concern at Timor army conscription

Mark Dodd

January 31, 2007

EAST Timor's parliament is to vote on a conscription bill that aims to fill the ranks of the country's ethnically divided defence force, but which critics say could trigger renewed social upheaval.

Interim Prime Minister Jose Ramos Horta on Monday addressed parliament to formally present the draft bill on military service. A vote is expected either today or tomorrow.

The law challenges Australia's and the UN's preference for East Timor to stick with a small, affordable, all-volunteer light infantry force. And it short-circuits a UN security sector review into the defence force and its future in the wake of last year's political violence.

"The majority of people protesting last year against the Government and F-FDTL (East Timor Defence Force) were youths, so how can you expect to conscript young men and women to serve in an institution like the F-FDTL that has such a big problem with its reputation?" said one senior Dili-based Western diplomat.

The new law proposes an 18-month mandatory conscription period for all East Timorese, a radical solution for clearing Dili's troubled streets of angry unemployed youths.

Despite the presence of an 800-strong Australian military taskforce and hundreds of UN police, clashes between rival ethnic martial arts gangs have continued to erupt on Dili's streets, in violence that has left more than 40 dead and a tenth of the population displaced.

UN officials estimate as many as 40,000 East Timorese could be eligible for the draft.

Reliable Dili-based diplomatic sources speaking on condition of anonymity warn the law could trigger widespread rejection and unrest among ethnic westerners, so called Loromonu people, who blamed bias by eastern-born commanders for deserting the force last year.

The mutiny involving about 600 soldiers snowballed into full-scale political violence and brought the tiny country to the brink of civil war.

If the conscription measure is passed, it would boost the depleted 720-strong F-FDTL to about 3000 men and women. But it raises questions about future funding for arms and equipment.

A spokesman for Defence Minister Brendan Nelson said the Government was watching developments, but said Australia would continue to work in support of the development of East Timor's defence force.

Australia has provided the bulk of funding to train East Timor's defence force. In 2001, it opened an army training centre at Metinaro, east of Dili, built at a cost of $7.5million.

The previous year Canberra announced a five-year $26million defence co-operation program, which the federal Opposition claims has been a waste of money.

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