Subject: AU: Send diplomacy along with force, JRH

The Weekend Australian July 12, 2003

Send diplomacy along with force

Greg Sheridan

EAST Timor's Foreign Minister, Jose Ramos Horta, has made a passionate plea for Australia not to withdraw its troops from the newly independent nation in May next year.

Australia has about 990 defence personnel in East Timor, out of a total UN peacekeeping force of about 4000.

This number is gradually being reduced. By the end of the year there will be only about 2000 UN troops in East Timor.

"I would urge Australia and the UN to review the time of the pull-out and show some flexibility," Ramos Horta says.

"We need some time to consolidate our institutions. Our own police and soldiers are not really ready to be deployed yet in terms of training, equipment and logistics.

"I am only asking for a small presence: one or two battalions, maybe half Australians and half others."

Ramos Horta reports a generally peaceful situation in East Timor, with low crime rates. But there is still militia activity on the border with West Timor.

"Some of this is organised crime, with some involvement by local Indonesian military and police, as happens elsewhere in Indonesia, " he says.

Ramos Horta does not believe this has the approval of the Indonesian Government, nor that it is on a very large scale.

However, there are still 27,000 East Timorese refugees in West Timor, including several hundred militia elements.

"The authorities in West Timor are fed up with the problems this presence causes," he says. "We have common interests with Jakarta and Kupang to resolve the security situation."

Ramos Horta's case for an extended Australian presence is surely compelling. Federal cabinet will formally consider the matter within weeks. Traditionally, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been committed to the view that Australian troops should be pulled out on schedule.

This reflects the old orthodoxy that our small state neighbours should make their own way in the world, with aid but not direct involvement from Australia, and should take responsibility for their own political futures.

The Department of Defence has traditionally been more sympathetic to the idea of keeping Australian troops in East Timor longer.

DFAT has also had the view that the UN Security Council would be unlikely to extend the mandate of the peacekeepers beyond the middle of this year.

But John Howard and Alexander Downer have revolutionised official Australian thinking on these issues and may well be prepared to respond sympathetically to Ramos Horta's request.

Although the situation on the border, where the Australian troops are deployed, is calm now, it would be easy to imagine it getting awkward.

It might be much better, and in the long run much less costly, to keep a stabilising presence there now, rather than perhaps having to get involved in some much more messy fashion later.

The only real downside to keeping a modest Australian troop presence there for a couple more years is that it could easily be misinterpreted by Jakarta. The Howard Government would thus need to handle very attentively the diplomacy with Indonesia of any such continuing deployment.

It would be worthwhile making a maximum effort to get the UN to provide some continuing mandate and to keep a non-Australian contingent in any continuing military presence.

Deploying Australian police would be diplomatically easier but the function on the border is probably one for soldiers.

The other imperative is to put much more effort into training and equipping East Timor's own law and order capabilities.

Ramos Horta is optimistic, in the long term, about his nation's future, pointing out that in a year or two oil and gas revenues will come on stream. Some big hotel chains are interested in building resorts and, if the situation with West Timor could be sorted out, there is a real possibility for a broader tourism industry to develop.

His Government has been moderate and cautious, declining even to borrow internationally until it is better equipped in terms of governance and institutions.

East Timor has been fortunate to have the leadership of its President, Xanana Gusmao, and Ramos Horta in this period.

"There have been no revenge killings and we have a terrific relationship with Indonesia, " Ramos Horta says.

He praises Indonesia's President Megawati Sukarnoputri and former president Abdurrahman Wahid for making visits to East Timor and for trying to help the new country.

Ramos Horta has pioneered reconciliation with Indonesia. He has refused, for example, to seek a UN tribunal to try Indonesians for crimes committed in East Timor. This would probably be futile and would vastly complicate Dili's relations with Jakarta, which he knows are vital if his country is to prosper.

And in words that would be music to Howard's ears, Ramos Horta remains strong in his support for the war in Iraq: "Is the situation better today because Saddam Hussein is gone? Of course it is."

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