Subject: The Age/News Feature: Mission Accomplished

The Age [Melbourne] Wednesday 23 February 2000

News Feature

Mission accomplished


PHOTO: Leaving in peace: East Timorese children play in Dili harbor as a warship loads equipment in preparation for the Australian withdrawal. Picture: ANDREW MEARES

East Timorese living in the Oecussi enclave in West Timor have decided to commemorate 22October, the day InterFET troops landed, as "the day Oecussi was saved". Their tribute underlines the swift and decisive way that the Australian-led International Force in East Timor (InterFET) oversaw the departure of Indonesia from the tiny half-island territory it had occupied since 1975.

Militarily, the operation has been a success, and InterFET will today hand over a largely secure East Timor to the incoming United Nations Transitional Administration. But the task confronting the UN administration is massive: no less than the rebuilding of a nation.

Ahead of the handover, InterFET has not been taking any chances, especially along East Timor's volatile western border. At the north-coast checkpoint of Motaain, the scene of the weekend stone-throwing fracas, army helicopters hover overhead, scrutinising both sides of the border.

About 500 metres from no-man's-land, an Australian M113 armored personnel carrier stands camouflaged at the roadside, armed with a heavy machinegun. Helmeted troops in flak jackets from 5/7 Royal Australian Regiment occupy machinegun pits. Other armored personnel carriers are deployed in staggered defensive positions around the old Portuguese fortress at Batugade. Soldiers at a checkpoint halt traffic and record details of all people travelling to the border.

A battalion-strength Australian military presence at Balibo and Batugade will remain as part of the new UN military command.

The InterFET commander, Major-General Peter Cosgrove, told a Mass celebrated in his honor on Sunday that he realised Operation Stabilise would succeed when Dili's Bishop Carlos Belo held his first Mass in Dili's cathedral within days of InterFET's arrival on 21September.

Along with two companies of British Gurkhas, Australian troops quickly fanned out across the near-deserted city, reclaiming the UNAMET headquarters and detaining scores of militiamen. Most were soon released.

Within a month, East Timor had been secured, despite clashes with what InterFET officially described as die-hard "militiamen" (front-line diggers described them as Indonesian troops).

"The real legacy of InterFET is the withdrawal of all Indonesians," says Professor Jarat Chopra, the UN's head of district administration. "Even in the districts where people don't see the things they need in their daily lives, there is at least the reality that they are not living with the militias. Life might be very difficult in Liquica, for example, but there is no TNI (Indonesian military) or militia and that is a pretty tangible legacy of InterFET."

InterFET established a detention centre that has 42 in custody on serious charges, mostly murder, and most of them related to post-ballot violence last September.

InterFET was versatile. It repaired roads, ran medical clinics, re-roofed government buildings, built sewage-treatment ponds and bridges, distributed food, removed garbage, and renovated churches, airports and at least one city market.

It helped the people of East Timor believe in a better future.

Despite earlier fears, there were no clashes with departing Indonesian troops. Only one InterFET soldier died, and that was when a vehicle rolled. The once-feared militias have collapsed into disarray, with their supporters defecting in droves.

Of course, there have been criticisms of InterFET: that it was slow to move into the hinterland and, in particular, to deploy to Oecussi, only moving into the town one month after its arrival in Dili.

But Cosgrove was determined to avoid casualties, if at all possible. InterFET's view was that the whole border had to be secured before deploying in force into the towns.

Operation Stabilise provided valuable lessons. Australia's woefully deficient heavy helicopter lift capability led to desperate appeals to the United States for logistical support. And the navy needs an amphibious assault ship or something similar if it is to mount another East Timor-type deployment.

Logistical problems aside, Cosgrove says the 8500-strong UN peacekeeping force, led by Philippines Lieutenant-General Jaime de los Santos, is up to the job of ensuring peace and stability in East Timor.

"The East Timorese should be very confident," he said at a recent handover in eastern Baucau.

Others are not so optimistic. "I am biased towards InterFET," one senior diplomat, who asked not to be named, told The Age.

"For the first time the East Timorese people have actually seen a professional military force that has acted in their interests and not against them. I think the cohesion of the UN peacekeeping force will be more of a challenge, especially standards of discipline, getting everybody coordinated and not letting national interests get in the way, especially with the Portuguese.

"People will eventually tire of a pervasive military presence. The challenge for the UN will be not to ignite broader social resentment."

As for the future of the Falintil pro-independence guerrillas, their commander, Xanana Gusmao, says the force will be maintained while the militia threat remains. The strength of the guerrilla force is now about 1000 under arms.

One potential source of conflict is the relationship between the East Timorese and the UN transitional administrators, led by Brazilian diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello.

Independence leaders are anxious to hear from the UN about when it will leave - a question that even the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, in a visit to East Timor last week, was unable to answer. "We (the UN) want to help you establish, as quickly as possible, a peaceful, stable, democratic, independent state. But ... we must all be patient," he said in a speech to the people of Dili.

Annan said he sympathised with frustration at the pace of reconstruction.

"You need jobs, you need shelter. You want those who are guilty (of violence) to be brought to justice. I know that you are worried about crime, about family and friends still in exile, and about the slow pace of recovery. My friends, tomorrow is going to be difficult. Reconstruction is an immense task."

Annan said the international community had pledged more than $800million in assistance that would soon start to flow. The long-suffering East Timorese want to know when. For the time being, they will have to get used to being told what to do by the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor.

The UN-chaired National Consultative Commission, comprising the pro-independence National Council of Timorese Resistance, the church and representatives of the pro-integration side, debates policy issues and serves as the nearest thing to a government-in-waiting. But political tensions within the CNRT are becoming more evident. Miffed at the attention being lavished on the CNRT president, Gusmao, a senior CNRT official, Joao Carrascalao, the nominal head of the Timorese Democratic Union, has openly quarrelled with several recent commission decisions and thinks he would make a good leader for East Timor.

Indonesia spent millions of dollars arming and backing the militias that went on a military-backed rampage after East Timor voted overwhelmingly for independence in a historic UN-organised ballot on 30August. Hundreds of pro-independence supporters were killed, tens of thousands were forcibly deported into Indonesian West Timor and whole towns were torched and looted bare.

Australia filled the leadership role and, with other friendly countries, dispatched an international force to restore peace and stability.

Now, with unemployment at about 80per cent, kick-starting the feeble economy is a priority for independence leaders such as Gusmao and Nobel laureate Jose Ramos Horta. But start-up capital for small-scale entrepreneurs is non-existent and this has led to a sharp rise in social tensions, especially when big Australian firms gobble up lucrative UN contracts.

Business is picking up. Dili's central market has been transformed from a burnt-out ruin five months ago to a roaring commercial centre overflowing with stalls and produce, much of it imported from Indonesia. The rupiah is the currency of choice at the market, while the US dollar will be used in official transactions.

East Timor's long-term economic prospects hinge on its annual coffee crop, worth about $47million. Experts say there is no reason why this figure cannot be doubled within a few years. A renegotiated Timor Gap Treaty should eventually bring in welcome petro-dollars. But in the short to medium term at least, East Timor will remain aid dependent.

As for the returning Australian troops, the final word belongs to Cosgrove: "We will always be better people for having been in East Timor."

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