Subject: CT: Police Face Hard Battle For Timor Recognition

Police Face Hard Battle For Timor Recognition

04/18/2000 Canberra Times Page 9

PRIME MINISTER John Howard has been unstinting in his praise of our East Timor veterans. It is appropriate recognition for the magnificent contribution they made towards returning peace to the island where people had dared, despite all the intimidation and warnings of violence, to vote for independence.

It is quite understandable that Australian soldiers couldn't have been in place to stop the worst of the terror. Timor remained part of Indonesia until the result of the ballot was known and, as Mr Howard has pointed out, Australia couldn't send troops without our neighbour acquiescing.

However, a contingent of unarmed Australian Federal Police assisting with the election process was there as the violence erupted around them. Bravely they stood their ground, keeping the tiny police compound in Dili open for refugees and the media, until the world's outrage kicked the United Nations into belated action.

There has been no " welcome home" for these officers, many of whom remain traumatised by the events in Timor . No medal has been issued to recognise their voluntary service; others believe they're being denied their proper entitlements as well.

The manner in which the police have been treated seems outrageous and inexplicable. The only way of explaining the Government's dismissive response to their bravery is to realise that it is associated with the utter failure of the Government's policy in the lead-up to the vote. The Government ignored repeated warnings many from the police contingent of the violence that was likely to follow the announcement of the result. The police remind us of the disaster that engulfed the island. The politicians want to wrap themselves in the flag and be associated with the successful deployment of troops, once the violence had stopped.

That doesn't play well with earlier assurances by Foreign Minister Alexander Downer that everything would be all right. There's no political value in recognising the police contribution. That's why it wasn't until late on Thursday that the Government grudgingly, belatedly, offered to allow the police to march in the " welcome-home" parade for the defence contingent.

Superintendent Fred Donovan apologised for the late advice that gave the police less than 24 hours notice to indicate if they'd like to attend, where they will march behind the Navy, Army and Airforce contingents, even though they went to Timor first.

In his e-mail (sent at 5:58pm last Thursday), Donovan noted that the late notice was " out of our control". In fact, it wasn't until some journalists realised the police wouldn't be marching that their late inclusion was announced.

The Chief of the Defence Force, Admiral Chris Barrie, has speculated that Australia may play a greater role in peacekeeping deployments in the future. If so, it's probably worth us recognising that the maintenance of peace means much more than simply deploying forces to ensure the absence of war.

However, it's also worth noting that the police saw the worst of the violence. Initially they had been spread throughout the island in isolated detachments, despite the brutality already demonstrated by the militias.

Although the United Nations insists it had no idea of the violence that would follow the poll result, it seems significant that the UN took the precaution of withdrawing the police, wherever possible, from these outposts.

Sickening horror escalated

Within an hour of the announcement, the gunfire began the sharp sounds of automatics coupled with the dull thud of grenades, burning buildings and explosions. As the horror escalated, the police refused to leave those who had sought safety in their compound.

One of those police, Wayne Sievers, described the sickening horror of a scene, early in the siege. " The women and children would have been killed by the militia within an hour of our departure," he said. " Their refuge had become a death trap. We opened a hole in the back fence . . . a nearby Indonesian army machine-gun position open fired above their heads to force them back into the compound. They later shot people dead." He described the scene, with Dili burning and random gunshots shattering the night. The horror of watching terrified women throwing their children on to coiled, razor wire around the compound in the hope that they could escape being killed by the militia. Continuous looting, while soldiers herded hundreds of thousands of people at gunpoint on to trucks bound for West Timor where many remain today.

Sievers witnessed simply what all the police saw.

" The horizon glowed and ash fell into the compound. I could also see tracer rounds passing metres above my head as they impacted into the hill behind us. The cries and praying of the hungry women and children under our protection were punctuated only by the occasional grenade landing nearby. It was as close to hell as I had ever seen." Sievers is now Secretary of the ACT Branch of the Australian Federal Police Association, although he isn't making any further comment on East Timor . He's been told not to.

It's not surprising that some police are having difficulty returning to normal life at home. Yet there's still no consolidated figure of the number affected by malaria, dengue fever or post-traumatic stress because of " privacy issues". However, it would appear that about 40 per cent of the officers deployed on the island have suffered as a direct result of their posting.

Other factors increasing the stress unnecessarily are the difficulty they have had in obtaining full entitlements, such as travelling allowance, and the lack of medals. Some soldiers are eligible for two medals to mark their service in Timor , while those in the police contingent haven't even been accorded one.

The politicians who went to the island Tim Fischer, Laurie Brereton, Marise Payne and Viki Bourne have been supportive. They saw what the police did. Yet, the Government as a whole has quietly ignored the issue.

For the past 50 years, we've also managed to avoid recognising veterans of the Korean War. No welcome home or memorial for them, either, until later this morning, when they finally get their recognition on Anzac Parade.

In that war, the Americans were so impressed by the desperate stand of the 3rd Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment, at Kapyong, that they awarded a Presidential Unit Citation to all members of that unit. Our politicians are somewhat harder to impress.

Originally they tried to make the vets pay their own way to a reception until media exposure finally got the pollies to pay up. Disgusted with the pettiness of the dispute, many of those who fought in Korea didn't bother attending.

If Australia expects our soldiers and police to serve the community selflessly, we have to repay them with a bit more generosity.

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