Troubled state

Print edition : June 16, 2006

The need to prevent the emergence of another failed state may have prompted Australia to help the government in Dili.

P. S. SURYANARAYANA in Singapore

PRESIDENT XANANA GUSMAO waving to his supporters in Dili on May 29.-FIRDIA LISNAWATI/AP

EAST Timor, not yet well known by its official name of Timor Leste, is no longer the "country still hidden from view" on the international stage. The evocative portrayal by David Scott, a Western activist who knew well the resistance that led to the territory's independence from Indonesia, is still politically resonant. However, the attention that Timor Leste received in late May was for the wrong reason of political and military instability.

The former Portuguese possession passed into Indonesia's hands at the time of de-colonisation and `re-gained' independence by the beginning of the 21st century. This phase of the tiny state's history has been associated, in more recent times, with the political struggle and `vision' of Xanana Gusmao.

In the context of the unrest in late May, Gusmao, the country's supreme leader and President, is widely seen to be above the fray. The controversies surround the politics of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, and the antagonists are the axed 591 soldiers and the 800 loyalist personnel of the country's military establishment. The government's agenda of quelling the `rebellion' by dismissed `dissident' military personnel is insignificant for any major international focus. However, the need to prevent the emergence of a new `failed state' may have prompted the international community to act, in response to requests for help from the government in Dili.

After learning how the `failed state' of Afghanistan under the Taliban served as a sanctuary for Al Qaeda, the international community is wary about the proliferation of such lawless states. This should explain the urgency that Australia, by far the most powerful country in East Timor's neighbourhood, showed in rushing troops to help the government in Dili.

However, Australian Prime Minister John Howard asserted, before the decision was made, that "we would not go in, unless we were asked in accordance with the constitutional processes of that country". He added that "you do not run around soliciting invitations" for military intervention in another country.

This attitude contrasted sharply with the international community's readiness to put East Timor through its paces of transition from Indonesian rule to independence. The transition was effected under the tutelage of the United Nations.

Even at that time, the United States had shown a lesser sense of urgency, and it was Australia that influenced Washington's shift towards a definitive policy of allowing East Timor to break free from Indonesia. The reasoning was dominated by such considerations as the human rights of the East Timorese who were seen to have come under Indonesia's `hegemony'. No less important was the unstated reality of East Timor's strategic location along international sea-lanes that could serve as an alternative to the Malacca Straits for international trade.

Now, in contrast, if Timor Leste has had to wait for international attention, it is not because of any dilution of the territory's geopolitical credentials. The maritime zone around Timor Leste is still known for its natural resources. So, the reason simply is that the international community, notably Australia as a traditional U.S. ally in Timor Leste's neighbourhood, is wiser after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The name of today's game is not just intervention but intervention with an exit strategy.

Within these parameters of external calculations about Timor Leste, Australia and a few other countries sent in troops by late May. Known as "Operation Astute", the phased Australian deployment of about 1,800 Defence Force personnel was mandated "to bring security, peace, and confidence to Timor Leste". Specific tasks under Operation Astute were to begin with the evacuation of Australian and other foreign nationals "as appropriate and necessary".

AUSTRALIAN SOLDIERS TRY to control a crowd as people queue up for rice at a warehouse in Dili on May 29.-MARK BAKER/AP

The paramount task, though, was to "stabilise the situation and facilitate the concentration of the various conflicting groups into safe and secure locations". Closely linked to this political mandate was the sub-agenda of creating "a secure environment for the conduct of a successful dialogue to resolve the current crisis". Subsumed within this political task was the military-related need to "audit and account for the location of weapons that belong to each group".

What then is this crisis about, when the Australian contingent is far bigger than the entire size of the military forces of Timor Leste, now down to about 800 after desertions by and dismissals of, in all, 600 others? The "rebels", a band of largely young soldiers from the west of the country, felt discriminated against by senior personnel, mostly from other ethnic groups in the east. This accounted for the "rebellion", the desertions from the army, the dismissals, and the surprising attacks on the "loyalists" by the "rebels".

At the heart of this crisis, which caused dozens of deaths in the first few days of the clashes, were the differences between Gusmao's older lieutenants of "guerilla vintage" and his relatively younger followers. Complicating the situation were the perceived ethnic tensions between the respective societal groups.

Part of the reason for this latter-day antagonisms among Gusmao's one-time close camp-followers is Timor Leste's preoccupation with its past agonies rather than its future potential. Although Gusmao is hardly the target of the "rebels", external observers say there has been little economic progress since the `regained independence'. Unemployment and other economic hardships have served to bestir trouble that erupted for other reasons.

Caught in the vortex of this crisis was the Prime Minister, a Muslim in a predominantly Christian society. Alkatiri was quick to see the trouble as a law and order issue and that accounted for the rush to seek external help.

However, truth and reconciliation are still resonant political themes in Timor Leste. The late-May crisis was not linked to the politics of justice that concerned the treatment of the East Timorese at the hands of Indonesian authorities in the past. Nonetheless, any solution to the new crisis will look less fragile if all the anti-Indonesian "guerillas" of yesteryear can get justice, with reference to not just Jakarta but also the government in Dili. This is an aspect that the implementers of the reports of expert panels on Timor Leste's past will do well to recognise and act upon.

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor