Bungled bullying in East Timor?


Peter Boyle

Among the cynical circles of Australian foreign policy "experts" committed to Australia playing a neo-colonial role in the Asia-Pacific region, there are some differing views on the Howard government's military intervention in the East Timor crisis. The discussion is not about how the Howard government can best help the East Timorese, but how it can best take advantage of the situation to promote Australia's "national interests".

James Cotton, professor of politics at the Australian Defence Force Academy, believes the current Australian military intervention in East Timor is a "missed opportunity".

Speaking at a public seminar at the Australian National University on June 9 entitled "Beyond the crisis in Timor-Leste: options for future stability and development", Cotton argued it is good that Australia has its troops in the country, at the invitation of the East Timorese government, because the country has been in a "pre-revolutionary", "dual power" situation since March, following the fracturing of its army and police .

A container-load of powerful weapons had been imported by PM Mari Alkatiri's brother to arm a special police unit and these arms now could not be accounted for, he charged, arguing that this alone justified the Australian military presence and the pre-positioning of Australian troops last month.

Cotton conceded that this military presence was not an effective tool for maintaining basic law and order in Dili following the collapse of the local police force. The Australian armoured personnel carriers were doing more to destroy the roads in Dili than stopping the youth gangs, he joked, but they had to ensure the safety of "our troops and police".

According to Cotton, the Howard government rushed to this latest intervention without working out its political perspective properly. The "wrong people" are in government in East Timor, he asserted, and the presence of the Australian troops today may well bolster their rule. "If we cannot have a say in who is in charge in East Timor, we should withdraw our troops."

This mistake paralleled a similar error in 1999 when the Interfet intervention had to be "cobbled together over a weekend", Cotton claimed. But not enough plans were made to ensure that Australia had a say in who would be in charge of the country when the UN Interfet force left, he said.

Cotton described East Timor as "a liability, not an asset to Australia", and while he disagreed with the aggressive approach taken by the Howard government in negotiations over proceeds from the offshore oil and gas fields between the two countries — which denied the full revenue it is entitled to under international law — he believed that the end result was fair. Australia's share, according to Cotton, was a fair payment for providing military "protection" for the Greater Sunrise gas field, which might otherwise be claimed by Indonesia.

Earlier in the seminar Bob Lowry, a retired lieutenant-colonel in Australian military intelligence and a former Australian government-seconded security adviser to the East Timorese government in 2002-03, complained that his advice to the Alkatiri government to get rid of former guerrilla army leaders from the armed forces had been rebuffed. These guerrilla leaders thought that they had a "revolutionary entitlement" and were above the law, he said, claiming the army was a "pension scheme" for them.

Lowry had also objected to the East Timorese government's desire to set up a separate national security intelligence unit, arguing that intelligence should be left to the police.

Lowry argued that the current crisis was not the fault of the "international community", nor a result of the UN administration ending prematurely, but was the fault of Alkatiri and his government.

From Green Left Weekly, June 14, 2006.
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