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06 October 2008

International Peacekeepers Not the Key to Stability in East Timor

DILI 06 Oct 2008 (IPS) - East Timor's political elite cannot leave the country's stability up to the International Stabilisation Forces (ISF). They must unite and stop bickering for power, according to experts, academics and observers.

"Sustainability of stability of [East Timor] does not belong to foreign troops; it belongs to Timorese leaders on how to overcome their contradictions," Mari Alkatiri, former East Timorese Prime Minister, told IPS.

The fracture within East Timorese leadership surfaced in 2005. It reached its peak in 2006 and that caused divisions between those who are from the western and eastern parts of the country. The conflict caused 37 deaths, and over 100,000 Dili residents to flee their homes. It resulted in Alkatiri’s resignation as Prime Minister and the arrival of International Stabilisation Forces -- comprised of Australian and New Zealand troops.

The rivalry between Alkatiri and Xanana Gusmao, East Timor's current Prime Minister, intensified when Gusmao formed his National Congress for the Reconstruction of East Timor (CNRT) party and directly challenged and competed against Fretilin -- the political party which won the last general elections. CNRT went on to form a coalition government with other political parties, including the Majority Parliamentary Alliance (AMP). This CNRT government has never been recognised by Fretilin.

"There are two people here if they can sit and really understand each other, then 80 percent problems of the country will be solved. I am ready to sit with Xanana Gusmao but not as a commander and a soldier," said Alkatiri to IPS at the Fretilin headquarters.

At present there are 750 Australian Defence Force personnel in East Timor; their task is to maintain the country’s stability. They are composed of a joint task force headquarters and Timor-Leste Battle Group Four.

"East Timor is one of [Australia's] nearest neighbours; the country is still in difficulties, as a neighbour that has a lot of resources we are happy to help. We want a secure safe and prosperous East Timor on our doorstep," Peter Heyward, Australia’s ambassador for East Timor told IPS.

East Timor is seen as being quite strategic for Australia, due to its geographic location. Any foreign intrusion may use East Timor as its military launching base.

Stability in East Timor will also ease the bilateral relationship between Australia and Indonesia. "East Timor’s security cannot be assured without the help and cooperation of Indonesia, and Australia’s relationship with Indonesia cannot prosper if East Timor’s security remains a problem between us. Neither of us wants it to become a source of instability in our neighbourhood, and threatening our own security or complicating our bilateral relationship," reads a 2002 Australian Strategic Policy Institute paper entitled ‘New Neighbour, New Challenge, Australia and the security of East Timor’.

Gusmao recently requested more troops from Australia following a double assassination attempt on both himself and East Timor’s President on Feb. 11.

Although Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd distanced himself from his predecessor John Howard’s rhetoric in foreign policies, Australian strategic interest -- to be the influential power in the region -- is still his governing motive.

"The Asia-Pacific region will become more prosperous and its population will continue to grow. As nations grow and become more affluent, they also update their military forces," Rudd said in a speech to the Returned and Service League.

Rudd has indicated there is an increase of "the real growth of the defence budget by three percent per annum 2017–18". Australia was ranked 14th in the world by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in 2007 in terms of its overall military expenditure.

"If Australia wants to create stability in the region, it is not by creating military muscle and aligning with the U.S., or aligning with other economic powers, it is by empowering, giving more credibility to the region itself," Loro Horta, an associate research fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, told IPS.

Apart from sending its troops to lead the ISF, Australia has been providing funding to East Timor. It is one of East Timor’s main donors, apart from Japan and China. It will donate over 100 million dollars over the next four years to the country.

The East Timor security situation has been improving but is still fragile. This is the rationale for the ADF not pulling out of East Timor. Political rivalries are brewing as the early 2009 election looms, and East Timor military reform has not progressed much.

Many were surprised when Gusmao combined the country's security forces -- the Policia National de Timor Leste (PNTL) and Falintil-Forcas de Defesa de Timor Leste (F-FDTL) -- under a joint command.

"F-FDTL should not be acting as a second police force, internal security function is police function, and army is for external security. In East Timor until just recently, the army is quite heavily involved in internal security through the joint command," John Virgoe, a researcher with the Brussels-based independent, non-profit, International Crisis Group (ICG) told IPS.

The "problem within F-FDTL and PNTL has not been solved, particularly within PNTL," said Alkatiri.

This is a crucial problem that the country faces in the future, and urgently needs to be addressed, if the ISF presence in East Timor is to be temporary.

There is an opportunity now for the political elite to put aside their differences and unite, while a secure space is created by the presence of ISF. It is something that the Timorese population is waiting for.

"It is up to Timorese leadership to use the breathing space to give opportunities and create jobs for the people. The problem with Timorese is we are united by an external foreign threat, but when it is not there any more we tend to turn to each other," Horta told IPS.

(END/2008)

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