Former East Timorese prime minister Mari Alkatiri has called for the withdrawal of Australian troops from his country. Speaking to Agence France-Presse on August 20, he said: "It would be better for Australian troops to just return home if they cannot be neutral. They came here to help us solve our problems, but they came to give their backing to one side and fight against the other."
Alkatiri's comments came after parliamentary and presidential elections in which the Australian-led International Stabilisation Force (ISF) was accused of harassing the campaign of Alkatiri's party Fretilin and the Australian government made no secret of its preference for anti-Fretilin candidates Jose Ramos Horta and Xanana Gusmao.
Ramos Horta won the presidential elections in May. Fretilin came out of the June 30 parliamentary elections with the largest vote, but with their vote reduced to 29% from 57% in the 2001 elections. On August 6 Ramos Horta invited Gusmao to form a coalition government between his National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), which won 24% of the vote, and two smaller parties, the Democratic Party and the Social Democratic Party-Timorese Social Democratic Association. Fretilin disputed the constitutional legitimacy of this and called for protests. There has been widespread civil unrest since Gusmao's appointment, which has been met with a heavy-handed response from the ISF. Two people have died in the disorder.
The immediate catalyst for Alkatiri calling for the Australians' withdrawal was two incidents on August 18 in which Australian soldiers stole and desecrated Fretilin flags. In an August 20 media release, Fretilin MP and party vice-president Arsenio Bano said, "The trashing of Fretilin flags is yet another demonstration of the partisan nature of the Howard government's military intervention in Timor Leste. 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. The stolen flag was returned by an Australian army captain later that day. In Alala village Australian troops tried to sever a Fretilin flag from its rope and then drove over it."
He added: "We condemn these extremely provocative actions which have inflamed an already volatile situation. The Fretilin flag has enormous symbolic and emotional value to the people of Timor-Leste which extends beyond Fretilin's members and supporters. Tens of thousands of people died fighting under this flag during the struggle for independence, including family members of the people who witnessed its trashing on Saturday."
The Australian Defence Force has not denied the incident. The August 21 Sydney Morning Herald reported an ADF spokesperson in Canberra offered an apology for what she described as "culturally insensitive" actions. However, she echoed the claims of Australian commander in Dili, Brigadier John Hutcheson, that this was an isolated incident. "I'm disappointed in the actions of these few soldiers. However I'm confident that the larger part of the force, particularly the remaining soldiers and so forth, are actually doing a very good job", Hutcheson told the ABC on August 20.
Bano disputed this, saying that "The Australian soldiers have insulted our martyrs and the entire East Timorese people. Their cultural insensitivity and arrogance typifies Australian military operations in the Pacific region. The soldiers take their cue from their officers who understand the true objectives of the Howard government's partisan intervention in Timor-Leste, which has had one overriding aim — the removal of the democratically elected Fretilin government and its replacement with the illegitimate government of Jose Alexandre [Xanana] Gusmao."
When Australian troops were deployed to East Timor, as part of an international force, in 1999 they received widespread support. This was because they had to replace the Indonesian forces that had occupied the country since 1975 (and killed more than 200,000 people — a third of the population), and oversaw the implementation of the outcome of a referendum in which the Timorese people had voted overwhelmingly for independence. East Timor officially became independent in 2002 and the international force, now under UN command, was progressively decreased and scheduled to be withdrawn by mid-2006.
However, in May 2006, civil conflict broke out following a military mutiny led by officers opposed to Alkatiri's government. This was a pretext for a new Australian intervention in the guise of the ISF, which is predominantly Australian but also includes New Zealand and Malaysian contingents. The mandate for the UN police was also extended to 2008. Initially Alkatiri joined with then-president Gusmao and then-foreign minister Ramos Horta in requesting the Australian-led ISF. However, subsequent events suggest that both the intervention, and the mutiny and civil unrest that were its pretext, were part of an orchestrated manoeuvre by Ramos Horta, Gusmao and the Australian government to remove him.
Australian media, in particular the ABC and the Murdoch press, pumped out misinformation linking Alkatiri with the military and police mutinies. The officers actually responsible for the mutinies, Alfredo Reinado and Vicente Rai Los da Conceicao, often featured in this media coverage not as coup leaders but, along with Ramos Horta and Gusmao, as credible sources making allegations against Alkatiri. Australian PM John Howard called for Alkatiri's removal and the ISF forces prevented peaceful pro-government demonstrations while turning a blind eye to arson and violence directed against communities where Fretilin had strong support. This created 150,000 "internally displaced persons" (IDPs) most of whom remain in squalid camps. On June 26, 2006, Alkatiri resigned and was replaced by Ramos Horta.
One of Canberra's motives for overthrowing the Alkatiri government was the same motive that saw successive Australian governments support the Indonesian genocidal occupation: the vast oil and gas reserves of the Timor Sea. The Timor Gap treaty, which Australia signed with Indonesia in 1991, gave Australia a disproportionate share of this resource. The Alkatiri government pushed for a more equitable division of royalties and for onshore LPG refining facilities to be built in East Timor rather than Darwin. Furthermore, the Fretilin government was willing to diversify foreign investment in the energy sector, seeking investment from Portugal, Italy, India and China.
Other Fretilin policies that met with Australian disapproval were the expansion of domestic rice production, which Canberra views as a threat to Australian export-oriented agribusiness, and obtaining Cuban assistance in building its health and education infrastructure. While the Australian media and political establishment makes much of Canberra's "generosity" towards East Timor, which was supposedly shown by the deployment of troops, the number of scholarships for East Timorese students in Australia has never exceeded 20 — pitiful in comparison to the 700 East Timorese given scholarships to study medicine in Cuba.
Since the deployment of the ISF, the Australians have been increasingly seen as occupiers. On February 23, two IDPs were killed and several more injured when Australian troops attempted to enforce a decision by the Gusmao-Ramos Horta government to close down the IDP camp at Dili's international airport. In a statement that appeared on the website of the US East Timor Action Network on February 28, camp residents demanded the withdrawal of all Australian troops and the bringing of those responsible for killing and injuring Timorese before an international tribunal.