Subject: Canberra Times: Tripping over the region

Canberra Times

November 3, 2006 Friday

Tripping over the region

The Canberra Times

FOR PRIME Minister John Howard, the recent Pacific Forum meeting must have been a rather uncomfortable experience. It should also have been a learning experience, a warning that Australians cannot take these small states for granted.

While the Government's declared aim to improve governance should be pursued, its officials and troops, it would seem, need to proceed more sensitively, respecting the independent status of these countries, while pursuing their lofty aim of improving governance. If they fail to do this, Australia's efforts could turn out to be counterproductive.

Howard and Alexander Downer should heed the words of Sir Michael Somare, leader of the largest of the Pacific states and the region's elder statesman. Sir Michael is the only leader who bridges the gap between the era of colonial experience and today's political scene. That journey has not been an easy one, for reasons which most Australian politicians seem not to understand, for it is a journey that we have no experience of. For example, most South Pacific states suffered the World War II upheavals we were spared. Also their national cohesion and unity have been undermined by the fact their national boundaries were formed by European colonial expansion and rivalry rather than natural evolution. Howard may have handled the Forum calmly, but whether he was encouraged to reach out and understand its background is another matter. It is not enough to call on these states to lift their game as if they were business enterprises. There is more to the problems facing Pacific states like Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Solomon Islands than mismanagement by weak, corrupt and irresponsible administrations. Australia will no doubt continue to play a leading role economically, but it will not necessarily win the respect and trust of the peoples of the region, on which success depends.

Right now the most serious problem of this nature is further west in East Timor, where more violence erupted last week. In a way, the Timor situation is by far the most serious international challenge posed by our small neighbours. Australia may be a big player there, but our influence is not unchallenged. The Timorese leaders may have close links with us, but their cultural preferences are elsewhere. The Timorese Government has cultivated close relations with the leading Portuguese Community states, especially Portugal and Brazil.

Despite past problems there are still close links between the East Timorese and Indonesians. Bahasa Indonesia is still more widely spoken in East Timor than Portuguese. Then there are strong links with Japan, now the leading aid donor, South Korea, China, Singapore and Malaysia. Timor also maintains special links with the European Union and the US, especially the US Congress some of whose leading figures in the past supported East Timor's quest for independence.

Most East Timorese politicians, especially the current Prime Minister, Jose Ramos Horta, accord the Australian relationship fundamental importance, but they have not forgotten those dark corners of the past, our dismal performance in relation to Indonesian moves to annex the colony and, more recently, our greedy response in relation to the Timor Gap treaty. If Australia's embrace becomes too close, it will not take a lot to arouse some resentment and suspicions. That is inclined to happen when our official pronouncements are insensitively paternalistic, or are laced with Cold War prejudices. It was evident, for example, that Mari Alkatiri was seen by some in the Howard Government as a left-winger, who could be leading the new nation in the direction of a Marxist political format. The fact he persuaded Cuba to send some 300 doctors to East Timor did not pass unnoticed. But there was nothing particularly Marxist about Alkatiri's administration. In fact, his readiness to follow World Bank guidance caused Paul Wolfowitz to praise his form of administration earlier this year.

Timorese were impressed with the internationalism of UNTAET, the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor, with its sensitive rules of engagement, and most do not agree with Australia's insistence that our forces there remain independent of the UN, in effect directly under Australia's control. From our military's point of view, it was really a mistake, for Australians, instead of the international community, now have to face hostility for the occasional incidents that are bound to occur during the outbursts of violence. A belief by some that Australia may have been behind Mari Alkatiri's removal also persists. It has just been aired by Defence Force Chief Brigadier-General Taur Matan Ruak. Although Ruak was criticised in the UN report he remains a highly respected figure in Timor Leste.

It is fair to assume the popularity our troops enjoyed five years ago when they displaced the hated TNI forces has declined somewhat. The media has reported the outbursts of hostility from street gangs, but these hostile attitudes go beyond the politics of the street. A number of Timorese parliamentarians have joined with the defence chief in calling for an investigation into incidents involving Australian troops.

During my stay I was impressed with the discipline and professional conduct of our soldiers, but it needs to be acknowledged that a few cases of overreaction, leading to some harassment, have occurred and, although these have been dismissed by the Horta Government, they have led to criticism that will not go away.

While the incidents are not serious, neither the Government nor our defence force commanders should dismiss them without a careful investigation. As our military contingent stands apart from the UN mission, it needs to take care to avoid any political alignment, bearing in mind the tribal character of the street gangs, a number of whom have links with East Timor's leading political parties. These gangs are a mixed bunch. Some are led by former Falintil guerrillas; a few have former TNI militia as members, while others function as protectors of the security of political or community bodies.

Unfortunately, while our forces and the UN mission cannot stem the violence, it will be impossible to disarm and disband them. James Dunn is a former Australian diplomat and advisor to the government in East Timor

Back to November menu
World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu