Subject: SMH: Now the beginning is over, East Timorese security is of the essence

Received from Joyo Indonesian News


Sydney Morning Herald May 20 2002


Now the beginning is over, East Timorese security is of the essence

Australia's work in turning its neighbour into a stable and prosperous country has only just begun, writes Hugh White.

For decades, Australian governments have been worried that an independent East Timor would be an economic basket case and a strategic liability. Today there is a real risk that those concerns will prove to be right.

So the independence day celebrations in Dili do not mark the end of the East Timor issue for Australia. It's really just, in Churchill's words, the end of the beginning. Now the real work starts.

Only a heart of stone could be unmoved by the success of East Timor's struggle for nationhood. We all hope for the people's sake that East Timor can make a go of it. And no-one could deny the scale of the UN's achievement over the past three years in bringing East Timor to this point, or the generosity of the international community in supporting it. Australia can be proud of its part.

But goodwill does not change the facts, and the facts are rather grim. Our new neighbour, even with its oil and gas revenues, is one of the poorest countries in Asia. Its political institutions are untested and shaky. And it has deep security problems.

All these problems will need to be fixed if East Timor is to defy the odds and become a stable, prosperous and successful country - and a good neighbour. In the long run, economic growth will be the key. But the security problems will need fixing first.

The East Timorese are all too aware of the presence of Indonesia across the border, only grudgingly acquiescing to the loss of its 26th province. One potential problem is a resurgence of anti-independence militia infiltrating from West Timor across the border.

But the more urgent security problems are home-grown. The biggest risk is lawlessness by armed and organised groups, including disaffected veterans of Falantil. They are uncomfortably reminiscent of some of the militia groups of 1999, or of PNG's raskol gangs.

East Timor's security institutions are not equal to the tasks they face. Despite a lot of help from the UN and others, including Australia, the police are under-trained and ill-equipped, and the court and justice system hardly functions. The army has no clear constitutional role in internal security and may become part of the problem if it becomes involved.

If these problems are not fixed quickly, East Timor will be drawn into a vicious circle of rising crime and lawlessness, economic stagnation and political instability. It all sounds very familiar - the pattern of failed states we have seen in the Solomon Islands, and which threatens PNG.

This matters to Australia. On a humanitarian level, we should be concerned for the long-suffering people of East Timor. On the strategic level, we should be concerned that a weak and unstable East Timor would seriously destabilise our neighbourhood.

East Timor's history and geography make its future central to our relationship with Indonesia. So the stakes for us are very high.

What can we do? Australia has done a lot already with the UN to help set up East Timor's defence forces and police. The UN will stay engaged for a while, and we should do all we can to encourage and support it. We should also encourage other donors, especially Portugal, to keep at it.

But in the long term this is going to be Australia's problem. A major study released today by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute offers seven concrete proposals. Of these perhaps the most important is to help East Timor's police. We have a long-term program of support for the East Timor Defence Force, but at present our aid program includes no plans for long-term help to the police and justice systems. We need to give them priority.

This will not be cheap. A long-term, comprehensive program to support East Timor's security will need sustained funding. But our current aid program of about $40 million per year is only about half of what we are spending in Vietnam, and a fraction of the $350 million we spend each year in PNG. We will need to do more, and for a long time.

Nor will it be easy. The East Timorese will not always welcome our views; indeed many will see Australia as part of their problem rather than the solution. We need to build goodwill and trust.

We need to recognise that East Timor's politics will not always match our values. Its political culture includes Portugal's heritage of oppression, the authoritarian example of Indonesia's New Order and the post-colonial Marxism of Mozambique, on which East Timor's leaders have modelled their Constitution. This will not always be an easy relationship to manage.

Finally we need to make sure that our security assistance to East Timor does not itself become a problem in relations with Jakarta. Many Indonesians suspect that we helped East Timor to independence so as to secure for ourselves a strategic foothold in their archipelago. These suspicions are silly, but dangerous, and we cannot afford to ignore them.

That means we should bring Australian forces home from East Timor when the UN leaves in a couple of years' time. Leaving Australian forces there indefinitely would be the worst way to help East Timor, both from their point of view and from ours.

Australians are deeply interested - almost fixated - in East Timor. But our attention focuses mostly on the past, and especially on the rights and wrongs of our past policies. But East Timor's problems, and our responsibilities, lie in its future. We now need to start thinking more clearly about East Timor's future, and our part in it. Helping them with security is the place to start.

Hugh White is the director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

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