AUSTRALIA: Questions Persist about Troops in East Timor

  • by Stephen de Tarczynski (melbourne, australia)
  • Inter Press Service

Last week, the ADF abandoned a social research study in East Timor after complaints of inappropriate behaviour were levelled at members of the Australian-led International Stabilisation Force (ISF), which consists of about 400 Australians and 150 New Zealand Defence Force personnel.

The ISF was deployed in 2006 at the behest of the East Timorese government following an outbreak of political violence in the fledgling nation. But it has downsized its size in recent months due to the improved security situation in East Timor, which became an independent state in 2002 after decades of Indonesian occupation.

In an early March letter to the rights group La’o Hamutuk - also known as the East Timor Institute for Development Monitoring and Analysis - a village chief in Lautém district in the far east of East Timor, complained that Australian 'military observers' acted improperly by asking sensitive political questions of local people at a meeting called by the foreign forces.

The meeting was part of an Australian Department of Defence study to seek East Timorese’ views on issues surrounding peace and stability in the country of more than one million people.

'They asked our community which government is better, the previous government or the current AMP government,' wrote chief Mateus Fernandes Sequeira of the Feb. 23 meeting in the Lore I subdistrict, referring to the Parliamentary Majority Alliance led by Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao that came to power after East Timor’s 2007 elections.

'Then they also asked of our community that whoever accepts the AMP government should raise their hands,' Sequeira added.

The AMP coalition succeeded the leftist Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN), which had been the governing party since independence.

Sequeira explained that publicly showing support for or against a political party can have negative consequences in a country that has fresh scars from decades of violence. 'We, as leaders of the community, see that this can create conflict,' he wrote.

Political divisions between sectors of East Timorese society have long led to violence. Conflict between pro-Indonesian and pro-independence groups began prior to the full-scale Indonesian invasion in 1975. By the end of the 24-year occupation by its giant neighbour, East Timor’ death toll had reached up to 200,000.

The 2006 crisis and the 2008 assassination attempts on the lives of Gusmao and José Ramos Horta, East Timor’s president, are more recent examples of political ruptures.

Charles Scheiner, a U.S. national working for La’o Hamutuk, says that during the Indonesian occupation it was common for soldiers to go into villages and question locals about their political leanings. Scheiner was one of two officials from the rights group to meet with ISF commander Col Simon Stuart, Australian ambassador Peter Heyward and New Zealand ambassador Tim McIvor on Mar. 12 to discuss the incident in Lore I.

The soldiers 'would gather people together, asking each person ‘are you for integration with Indonesia or are you for independence?’ If people said they were for independence then they risked being killed or tortured, and if they said they were against independence then after the soldiers left they risked being retaliated against,' Scheiner told IPS in a phone interview from East Timor.

'When you have a traumatised population and a people having had lots of horrendous experiences with foreign soldiers coming into the town, people have flashbacks, people remember that,' he added.

But the ADF says it maintains a strictly neutral stance in East Timor. 'At no point during any community forums have questions been posed by researchers about political alignment. Participants in the (Lore I) forum were not asked to indicate political alignment by raising their hands,' a defence department spokesman said in response to questions by IPS.

The ADF suggests that mistakes may have been made by the two interpreters at the forum, where English and the local languages Tetum and Fataluku were used.

While Scheiner admits that this is possible, he says that Australian-led forces have been accused of political interference before.

When the ISF arrived in the midst of the 2006 political crisis 'there were many reports of the ISF telling people ‘don’t be part of FRETILIN, don’t listen to FRETILIN’. There were cases of them (the ISF) obstructing the peaceful activities of FRETILIN and in general saying that FRETILIN was a bad entity,' said Scheiner.

Foreign troops were called in after what began as soldiers’ anger over discrimination in the military expanded to general violence in East Timor four years ago.

In 2007, Australian ISF troops were accused of confiscating and desecrating FRETILIN flags amid claims that Australia, which has played a major role in East Timorese affairs since 1999, maintained an anti-FRETILIN stance.

The incident in Lore I follows the deaths of two East Timorese civilians who were involved in accidents with ISF vehicles in recent years. The ISF, which operates outside the United Nations chain of command in East Timor and whose members are regarded as having virtual immunity, has been criticised for its lack of response to such incidents.

On Mar. 8, La’o Hamutuk called on ADF chief Angus Houston, who visited East Timor later in the month, to improve the ISF’s accountability for incidents involving locals.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service