Subject: SMH: Defence Force apologises for soldiers' desecration of Fretilin flag

Also The Age: Opinion - Troops must fly a flag of respect

The Sydney Morning Herald

Defence Force apologises for soldiers' desecration of Fretilin flag

Lindsay Murdoch in Darwin

August 21, 2007

AUSTRALIAN troops in East Timor stole flags of the deposed Fretilin party, tore them up and wiped their backsides with them, Fretilin claimed yesterday.

The incident has inflamed an already volatile situation in the country and it demonstrated the partisan nature of the Howard Government's intervention there, said Fretilin's vice-president, Arsenio Bano, and the nation's former prime minister, Mari Alkatiri.

A Defence spokeswoman in Canberra confirmed that a group of Australian soldiers took three Fretilin flags without permission on August 18.

But the spokeswoman would not comment on the claim that the flags were torn up and soldiers wiped their backsides with one as they drove off.

Mr Bano said soldiers grabbed the flags in two eastern villages where people were protesting against the formation of a government led by the former president, Xanana Gusmao.

More than 1000 Australian troops serving in East Timor's International Stabilisation Force and 1600 international police have been struggling to control violent protests by supporters of Fretilin, which had ruled the country since independence in 2002. Fretilin claims that Mr Gusmao's government is illegal.

"At Walili two Australian military vehicles full of soldiers tore up a Fretilin flag which had been raised at the roadside, wiped their backsides with it and drove off with the flag," Mr Bano said.

"In Alala village Australian troops tried to sever a Fretilin flag from its rope and then drove over it," he said.

Mr Bano said the incidents insulted all East Timorese because tens of thousands of Timorese martyrs died fighting under the flag during their 30-year struggle for independence.

He said the "cultural insensitivity and arrogance typifies Australian military operations in the Pacific region".

Mr Bano said the incidents could not be excused as the actions of misguided individual soldiers. "The soldiers take their cue from their officers who understand the true objectives of the Howard Government intervention in Timor Leste [East Timor], which has had one overriding aim - the removal of the democratically elected Fretilin government and its replacement with the illegitimate government of Jose Alexandre Gusmao," Mr Bano said.

The Defence spokeswoman said the actions of a small number of ISF soldiers involved in the taking of the flags were "highly inappropriate".

"The removal of any flag without permission is wrong and culturally insensitive," she said.

"The actions of the soldiers concerned have also let down their colleagues who are working extremely hard, day and night, to help the people of Timor Leste."

The spokeswoman said one of the flags was given back to villagers the day it was taken, with an apology.

Two other flags were being returned yesterday "with a sincere apology".

The ISF regretted the incident and was conducting an official investigation, she said.

Mr Alkatiri told the Agence France-Presse news agency the incidents were so serious that all of Australia's troops deployed in the country should go home. "It would be better for Australian troops to just return home if they cannot be neutral," said Mr Alkatiri, Fretilin's powerful secretary-general.

Mr Alkatiri said that while the Australians supposedly came to East Timor to help solve problems "they came to give their backing to one side to fight against the other".

Mr Alkatiri said the seizure of the flags was a provocation and accused the Australian forces of having intimidated Fretilin for some time.

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The Age

Opinion

Troops must fly a flag of respect

ANY flag, whether it be that of a nation or a political party, does not just flutter idly in the wind. It does much more than that. A flag is not only an embodiment of history, culture and identity but also of profound and immeasurable sentiment. Thus the announcement of a Defence Department investigation into the desecration by Australian soldiers of the official flag of East Timor's Fretilin Party is to be welcomed.

It is a serious incident that warrants a serious explanation. The department has so far confirmed that on August 18 a group of Australian troops took possession of three Fretilin flags from two villages where Fretilin supporters were protesting against the formation of a government by former president Xanana Gusmao. Fretilin, which had ruled the country since 2002, won more votes than any other party in the recent election and claims the Gusmao Government is illegal.

Fretilin says the soldiers, who are in East Timor as part of the International Stabilisation Force, then tore up the flags and wiped their backsides with one of them. Apart from inflaming what is an already volatile situation, the incidents insult all East Timorese, says Fretilin's vice-president, Arsenio Bano ­ and, if proven, this newspaper agrees. To describe these events as culturally insensitive is an understatement. They are no less than acts of contempt. Tens of thousands of Timorese died fighting under that flag during a bloody 30-year struggle for independence and the events of last week undermine their sacrifice and offend their memory. Thankfully, the flags have been returned to the villagers with appropriate apologies.

While Australian troops are to be praised for their efforts in maintaining peace and stability in such a turbulent environment, they are still guests in a foreign country and must behave in a manner that does not alienate their hosts or, for that matter, the Australians they represent. They are in East Timor as part of the solution and must ensure they are not seen as part of the problem.


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