Subject: The Age: Timor Village Chief Accuses Diggers of Asking About Political Views

The Age

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Timor Village Chief Accuses Diggers


AUSTRALIAN soldiers in East Timor have been accused of asking Timorese their political views, in violation of the country's constitution.

Soldiers from the Australian-led International Stabilisation Force (ISF) who went to a village in eastern Lautem District reportedly asked people at a meeting to raise their hands if they like the present coalition government better than the former Fretilin government.

Village chief Mateus Fernandes Sequeira has lodged a complaint about the February 23 incident, saying that asking people to reveal their political leanings could create further conflict in a country racked by violence in recent years.

An Australian Defence Force spokeswoman confirmed that civilian researchers had been conducting surveys throughout East Timor on matters related to peace and stability.

But the spokeswoman said at no point had Australian soldiers presented a question as part of community forums.

She said translation could have caused confusion in the village.

La'o Hamutuk, a non-government organisation in Dili, said coercing people to reveal publicly who they supported was ''dangerous and destructive''.

''It can lead to violence or retaliation, undercutting the stabilisation that the International Stabilisation Force is here to enforce,'' it said.

La'o Hamutuk said when Australian soldiers arrived in East Timor in 2006 to help quell violence there were many reports of them pressuring Timorese citizens to align with or against a particular leader or faction.

''In the crisis atmosphere and with the soldier's inadequate orientation and inexperience, this was regrettable but perhaps understandable,'' La'o Hamutuk said. ''However, after nearly four years here they ought to know better.''

Jose Teixeira, spokesman for Fretilin, the largest political party, said the behaviour of the soldiers was inappropriate. ''It harks back to the bad old days of 2006 and 2007 - during the Howard government - when Fretilin complained widely about political bias by the ISF,'' Mr Teixeira said.

East Timor's constitution guarantees the right to keep political views private.

Australian Defence Chief Angus Houston last month criticised soldiers in East Timor for not doing enough to care for a woman, 65, who had been struck by an ADF vehicle on a Dili street. The ADF was unaware for days the woman had died within hours of being taken to a Dili hospital.

Air Chief Marshal Houston told a Senate estimates committee that steps would be taken to ensure the neglect was not repeated.

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