Subject: Signs of progress in East Timor

Canberra Times (Australia)

October 27, 2008

Signs of progress in East Timor

Ross Peake

The Australian Defence Force is in East Timor for the long haul although the size of the contingent will vary according to the stability of the tiny nation.

Last week the Federal Government decided 100 of the 750 troops could be withdrawn because of an improvement in security.

Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said he was encouraged by the growing ability of the East Timorese to deal with security, with the help of the United Nations.

The International Stabilisation Force will now have a combined strength of 790 troops, drawn from Australia and New Zealand.

The Australian troops deployed to the impoverished nation to Australia's north are part of more than 3000 ADF personnel serving overseas.

The last budget predicted the East Timor operation would cost $174 million this financial year, one of the smaller deployments in what has been a dramatic surge in military deployments over the past decade.

The military operation began in 1999 to allow the East Timorese to vote in national independence elections free from the threat of Indonesian-backed militia thugs.

Since then, Australia has virtually signed on to an open-ended commitment to help maintain law and order.

The shooting of President Jose Ramos Horta and attempted ambush of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao earlier this year threw the country into crisis again and questions were raised about the costly intervention to stabilise the country.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd sent more soldiers and police, as former Prime Minister John Howard did in 1999 and again two years ago. But the death in the coup attempt of rebel leader Alfredo Reinado has raised hopes the rebellion will wither without his leadership.

Brigadier Mark Holmes, a career soldier originally from Brisbane, was sent to Dili in July to take command of the ISF.

He says the security situation is improving and people are moving freely on the streets.

"The situation here is stable and secure, and the East Timorese are progressing positively with more commerce," he said. "It's quite a visible sign of progress here that the people are moving freely. We've now got many more people out and about getting on with daily life. It's quite a vibrant and active community at all hours of the day."

Despite the temperature and humidity, Australian soldiers are fit enough to play sport, Brigadier Holmes said. "When we have some downtime, regardless of the time of day, the lads usually kick the football around or they get on the volleyball court or go to one of the gyms we've set up," he said.

"Playing soccer with the local Timorese is a very popular activity and it's played at all times of the day and in the early evening."

Adjunct Professor Norman Day, from RMIT, who has visited East Timor 24 times as a consultant on the reconstruction, says the lack of middle management is holding back economic growth.

"It has been obvious right from the start that it doesn't matter what you do: unless you've got someone to manage, it's completely irrelevant," he said.

"I remember Xanana saying once, there is no chance anything here will happen quickly. You guys from the West think it will but it won't, it's a two- generational problem because we haven't got an educated middle management team and we haven't got educated people."

Professor Day said he often compared the administration of East Timor with that of Vietnam.

"In East Timor they might be better if they had a one-party government because at the moment they've got about 20 parties involved in governing the place. It's only a million people and it doesn't work.

"There's so much dispute and argy-bargy and doing deals that they're not really getting on with the idea of nation-building in the way that they would like to."

The East Timorese had some bad experiences with foreign consultants who had "forgotten to listen", such as a Japanese engineering company which proposed building road tunnels through the mountains.

"The Japanese had mapped everything, they'd done a wonderful job. We used to watch them lay their photographs down, they were very meticulous," Professor Day said.

"The fact is they hadn't asked the basic question or understood the nature of the place. The East Timorese are animists and their view is that their island, their home, is a crocodile.

"The crocodile settled there millions of years ago and they live on the crocodile, they are born out of the crocodile and they die back into the crocodile so you don't drill holes in the crocodile."

Professor Day said the Australian troops were doing a good job and were highly respected.

"Australians have got a terrific reputation for fairness and equity that others haven't."

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