EAST TIMOR: Foreign troops occupy Dili

Wednesday, November 17, 1993 - 11:00

Jon Lamb

In response to ongoing clashes between the East Timor Defence Force (FDTL) and rebel soldiers and police, the East Timorese president, prime minister, foreign minister and speaker to the parliament sent a joint communique on the evening of May 24 to the Australian government requesting that it send troops as part of an international force to restore security.

Acting Prime Minster Peter Costello told reporters on May 24 that Australia had agreed and an advance contingent of 1300 Australian troops began landing in Dili late the following day. Defence minister Brendan Nelson commented on May 26 that Australian troops would utilise "graduated scales of force" to restore order — including lethal force — as part of the rules of engagement agreed to by East Timorese Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri and President Xanana Gusmao.

While posing as a helpful neighbour coming to East Timor's rescue, the Australian government has been a major source of the small nation's problems. After backing the brutal, 24-year Indonesian occupation of East Timor, Canberra's neo-colonial foreign policies — including the ongoing theft of Timor's oil — have undermined and threatened the ability of East Timor to develop since it won independence in 1999.

The clashes between the FDTL and a group of rebel soldiers began shortly after the end of the ruling party Fretilin's congress on May 19. There was an incident of rock throwing at delegates' cars late that night and reports of gunfire, but calm appeared to be restored shortly thereafter. However, a significant clash broke out on May 23, when a detachment of FDTL troops approached a well-armed group of rebel soldiers led by Major Alfredo Reinado, holed up in the hill areas near the eastern suburb of Becora. Two were killed and at least five wounded in the ensuing firefight.

Reinado, formerly with the FDTL military police, had set up a base in the hills outside Dili (near the town of Aileu) with protesters and civilians who had fled after police attacked a rowdy protest of sacked soldiers on April 28, killing five people and injuring many more. Reinado and his grouping have raised concerns over who was responsible for ordering the shooting of the protesting soldiers, known as "the petitioners". The almost 600 former FDTL soldiers were sacked in March by the head of the armed forces, Brigadier General Taur Matan Ruak, when they refused to return to their barracks in protest over poor conditions and allegations of favouritism.

Prior to the May 23 clash, Reinado had stated (along with other officers leading the rebels) that he was preparing to come to Dili on May 25 to commence negotiations over their grievances and demands. Reinado and Lieutenant Gastao Salsinha, who leads the original group of striking soldiers, also requested in the week prior to the arrival of the international force, the establishment of an international commission of inquiry into the April 28 incident and the soldiers' grievances.

Over the course of May 23 and May 24, sporadic clashes continued near Becora and in the western part of Dili in Taci Tolu and the south-central suburb of Lahane, where an attack by rebel soldiers appears to have been directed at the residence of the head of the FDTL. Late on the afternoon of May 23, it was reported that a section of the well-armed police rapid response unit had defected and headed to the hill areas on the outskirts of Dili where rebel soldiers are located.

A large cache of police arms was also reported missing — some 700 weapons — presumed taken by disaffected police who had gone to the hills surrounding Dili and other districts. According to Tomas Freitas from the campaign group Aluta Hamutuk, police from Baucau were also brought in by authorities to disarm police in Dili.

Rebel soldiers were also involved in skirmishes around the FDTL army base to the west of Dili on May 24. According to an article by Times journalist Rory Callinan in the May 25 Australian, up to 10 trucks of rebel soldiers were involved in the attack, prompting a naval vessel to be brought in to use heavy calibre weapons, though it was forced back under fire from rebels. Gunfire could still be heard across Dili late on the evening of May 24 and only subsided after heavy rain set in.

The situation deteriorated significantly, with intense fighting breaking out in other parts of Dili, including the centre of the city. According to the head of the UN Office in Timor-Leste (UNOTIL), Dr Sukehiro Hasegawa, the large number of arms distributed to civilians, especially youths, further complicated and intensified the situation. It also appears that tensions began to deepen between sections of the police and FDTL, with hostilities breaking out between the two institutions.

This fighting continued through to the next day, with even more intense firefights and arson attacks across many suburbs of Dili and the surrounding hills. The situation deteriorated to the point where there were at least two or more rebel army factions, joined by disaffected police, in combat with the FDTL. Well-armed civilian gangs were also engaged in fighting, roaming the suburbs and intimidating fearful locals. A situation of complete lawlessness had taken hold on the streets of Dili, with no clear chain of command in operation in either the police or the FDTL.

The most serious incident took place outside the East Timorese National Police Headquarters, which came under fire on the morning of May 25 from FDTL troops. In desperation, representatives of the 70 police trapped inside contacted the UN police based at the nearby UNOTIL compound to request assistance in negotiating with the FDTL so they could leave unarmed for the UNOTIL compound. Shortly after leaving the compound, they were fired upon by FDTL troops in what Hasegawa described to ABC Radio on May 26 as a "staged ambush". Twelve police officers died as a result, with at least 30 others wounded, including two UN police.

"It is in this circumstance, with all these armed groups operating without it being clear who they were or who they were under the direction of, that the presence of the international forces was important in restoring calm", Avelino da Silva, secretary general of the Socialist Party of Timor told Green Left Weekly.

According to Freitas, there were grave fears among progressive activists and non-government groups that the situation was out of control. "I stayed in Dili, along with other activists, to monitor the fighting and its consequences ... there was so much fear amongst the people because of the different armed groups on the streets, no-one knows who is the 'enemy' or who is behind it all", he told GLW.

Freitas emphasised that while the presence of international troops had reduced tensions, he had "a message to John Howard" not to try to extract some leverage or "compensation" from the East Timorese people because the Australian government sent troops.

As the fighting abated in the centre of Dili, sporadic clashes continued in the hills. World Vision reported that armed gangs were threatening two compounds where thousands of displaced persons had gathered.

Since attaining formal independence in 1999, East Timor has been plagued with problems of chronic poverty and underdevelopment, including barely functional medical and health services in the rural areas where the majority of East Timorese live and an extreme lack of employment opportunities for East Timorese youth. These factors and other deplorable daily living conditions for the vast majority of East Timorese, the bulk of whom struggled for many years under the Indonesian military occupation, have punctured the high expectations and hopes held for their recently won freedom.

The Fretilin-led government has been unable to implement policies to deal with these issues and expectations, and at the same time has been implicated in nepotism and corruption, fuelling anger and discontent in different sectors of East Timorese society. But for all its shortcomings, the East Timorese government has had to deal with international "friends" like Australia, whose imperialist policies have prevented East Timor from developing and meeting the needs of its people.

The Australian government — from the moment war-torn East Timor began the transition to independence — pressured, bullied and hustled East Timor into giving up oil and gas resources and sovereignty over seabed territory in the Timor Sea. It has stolen wealth generated from these reserves that rightfully belongs to East Timor.

Along with the United States and Britain, Australia has formed a triumvirate of nations that have acted to block the creation of an international inquiry to bring to account the Indonesian military (TNI) officers and pro-integration militia leaders responsible for the post-referendum carnage in 1999. Now these three countries are deepening and improving military ties with the TNI, even though the TNI is continuing to conduct gross human-rights abuses in places like West Papua, just like those it carried out in East Timor.

Australia's ongoing theft of oil from the Timor Sea — combined with its long history of undermining the East Timorese nation — suggests that Australia's motivation for the current military intervention is more about shoring up a continued flow of oil than helping the East Timorese people.

[For more commentary on the situation, see page 3.]

From Green Left Weekly, May 31, 2006.

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From GLW issue 669