Subject: AU: Timor troops stand to attention

The Australian

24 May 2004

Timor troops stand to attention

By Sian Powell, Jakarta correspondent

May 22, 2004

BACKS straight, arms swinging, faces set: the East Timorese troops and police officers marched slowly past the assembled dignitaries at this week's independence celebrations in Dili's football stadium.

The smartly uniformed squads looked bold, brave and disciplined, but many doubt their ability to control the security of this tiny half-island with its bloody history, its internal feuds and its festering poverty. Yet at midnight on Wednesday, full control of East Timor's security passed into East Timorese hands for the first time in 500 years.

Australia's biggest military foray since Vietnam is now just about over. From a peak of 5700 Australian soldiers in late 1999, by next week fewer than 100 Australian troops will be serving in East Timor, and none of them will have a combat role ­ they will mostly be concerned with engineering and logistics. All police control is now in the hands of East Timorese police commissioner Paulo Martins, and the UN police commissioner, Australian Sandra Peisley, has said her goodbyes.

Paul Retter, the Australian UN deputy force commander until last Wednesday, says the skeleton peacekeeping force remaining in East Timor will have the prime task of protecting 42 unarmed UN military liaison officers, drawn from a number of nations including Australia.

Only in the direst circumstances, and providing the East Timorese prime minister formally requests the UN mission commander, will the UN troops act in a conflict. So the East Timorese are almost entirely on their own if the worst happens ­ if the former militias massed in camps and villages across the border try to return to repeat the havoc they wrought in 1999, or if frustrated and hungry East Timorese run riot again, looting and burning as they did in 2002.

Yet a giant question mark hangs over the heads of those who have the responsibility of maintaining order in the struggling nation, where unemployment is estimated at 50 per cent among urban youth.

In his recent report to the Security Council, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said East Timor's security policy and structure needed clarifying. He noted a battle between soldiers and police officers in the eastern town of Los Palos in January this year, a clash eerily reminiscent of the army-police conflicts that emerge sporadically in Indonesia.

Annan wrote that it appears East Timor's army still has big problems, including low morale, an uncertain respect for discipline and authority, lack of training, and difficulties with Indonesian troops. Of the army's two battalions, one has a large complement of Falintil veterans, the guerrillas who fought Indonesian troops throughout the occupation. And they are making trouble.

Retter says it has to be remembered that some of these veterans spent years fighting in the mountains; they are comparatively old, and in some cases their health has been affected.

In certain cases, though, the desire outstrips the reality. "There are lots of people who claim they are veterans," he muses. "But only a few were there right through the 25-year period."

Another couple of hundred veterans of the brutal years of guerilla warfare are not in the army, having disqualified themselves by leaving the cantonments before they were given permission in 1999. Led by the old soldier known as L7, or ElSette, they have been known to voice their dissatisfaction with their rewards in the newly independent East Timor. The Government keeps a close eye on them and they are seen as potential trouble.

One international observer based in East Timor says discipline is often terrible. The veterans now in the army are simply not accustomed to following orders in any coherent way, and going AWOL is a serious infraction.

During the Indonesian occupation, if there was a problem at home, she says, a Falintil guerilla simply went off to fix it. And they still do.

"They just see it as normal behaviour," she says. "It's what they always did before."

On a broader level, military experts worry that power corrupts, especially if it's wearing epaulets. The ability to exert authority without abusing is rare among the armies of developing nations, and many fear that without thousands of blue berets watching them, East Timorese security forces will succumb to the age-old temptations.

East Timor's Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta dismisses fears of insurrection, invasion and graft. "Talking about external threats is academic anyway," he explains, adding that he is confident the police force will be able to handle any disturbance within the country.

"Of course, if they do fail to handle it, for the next 12 months we will have a credible back-up [from the UN]."

The fact remains, though, that the police of East Timor, now in charge throughout the provinces, have had few ­ if any ­ lessons in ethics.

Most of the officers have had barely three months of training, stacked up against decades of enduring the laissez-faire and usually corrupt methods of Indonesian police. Their performance in the 2002 riots won them no laurels, and they were criticised for making a number of contradictory reports.

A special police detachment will guard the border, where a black market in petrol, oil and other goods thrives. On top of coping with that, they will have to beware of perhaps hundreds of former militia men clustered just over the river. These gang members helped lay waste to East Timor in the months before and after the independence ballot in 1999, and they now have their own problems, including unemployment and family stresses.

Arnaldo Tavares, a prominent member of a notorious militia family, says the brutal gangs funded by the Indonesian military in 1999 are now dispersed.

"We often go [to see other ex-militia], but we can't visit all of them because the refugee camps are divided and far from the villages," he says. "We want to make a kind of bloc; we want to explain the situation to them."

Tavares, son of the one-time militia king of East Timor's border districts Joao Tavares, insists his motives are strictly peaceful. "But it is impossible for me to hold all of them [the ex-militia]," he says.

"Here there are some of them who were the victims of Falintil, so the element of revenge still there."

Retter says the border police will also have to overcome the Indonesian army's traditional disdain for all police, including their own. Yet by dint of sheer perseverance, the once poisonous relations between the Australian military forces and the Indonesian army are now thought to be smooth, and he considers that a good portent for future relations between East Timor border security and the Indonesians.

Certainly Djoko Setiono, the Indonesian military commander for border security, lauds the Australian plan of cross-border meetings, meetings and yet more meetings. He lists all the regular get-togethers, from the level of platoon commander right up to sector level.

"We discuss all the problems which exist in the border areas," he says. "And we fix all the problems that we find in the field."


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