DOCTYPE HTML PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN"> Defence Force dispute puts East Timor in crisis. 25/05/2006. ABC News Online

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Force divided: Allegations of discrimination within the Defence Force have led to unrest.

Force divided: Allegations of discrimination within the Defence Force have led to unrest. (Reuters)

Defence Force dispute puts East Timor in crisis

When East Timor's people voted for independence in 2002, the tiny South-East Asian nation became the world's newest and poorest country.

The violence which surrounded the vote had destroyed 90 per cent of the country's infrastructure and left thousands dead.

The World Bank put unemployment at 70 per cent and said the average person lived on 55 cents a day.

The country was free but the scope of the problems facing the new Government was immense.

Over time, the fledgling administration assumed greater responsibility, and the UN workers and foreign forces backing it up began to leave.

Australia withdrew its last troops in June 2005, saying it had left the country in the hands of a "competent" East Timorese force.

But foreign forces are now returning to East Timor at the request of a Government which admits it is on the brink of losing control.

"The Government had to weigh all of these implications and the Government is aware of that," Foreign Affairs Minister Jose Ramos-Horta said.

"One implication of requesting foreign assistance is our own acknowledgement of our inability to lead the people in a wise and efficient manner."

Defence Force dispute

The current unrest stems from allegations of discrimination in East Timor's 1,400-strong Defence Force.

Claiming that soldiers hailing from one side of the country were being favoured over those from the other, 600 soldiers deserted their barracks.

When they defied calls to return in March, they were sacked.

The decision spurred street protests in Dili, which turned violent when security forces fired on the crowd.

Five people were killed in the April 28 skirmish and an estimated 21,000 people - remembering the violence that marred the independence vote - fled their Dili homes.

"All of the people here are afraid, scared," one fleeing resident, Iria Tamele, said.

Since then, there have been sporadic clashes between Army members and the rebel soldiers, who have been hiding in the hills surrounding the capital.

Gangs of youths have also been terrorising the capital, threatening civilians with violence.

Government 'to blame'

Dr Ramos Horta admits the situation is the fault of the Government.

"My Government has to accept responsibility for failing to address these problems when they arose two, three years ago," he said.

But he says the request for international help is not an admission that the country has descended into civil war.

"I view these measures as preventive measures to prevent the country from sliding further into instability," he said.

Dr Ramos Horta is hoping the arrival of about 1,300 Australian troops, along with security personnel from New Zealand and Portugal, will have an instant impact.

"We do not anticipate that either the [Australian] police or the Defence Force would have to engage in any hostile activities because we believe the moment the news of these forces is made public and the moment the Australian forces land in Timor, this will have an immediate calming effect," Dr Ramos Horta said.

Negotiation possible

The rebel soldiers, who are led by Major Alfredo Reinhado, are thought to be willing to talk.

"The very bulk, the majority of the other officers with whom I [had] contact ... they want a political settlement," Dr Ramos Horta said.

And the East Timorese people, Dr Ramos Horta says, have faith the Government will restore order.

"People have enormous trust in President Xanana [Gusmao] to address the situation," Dr Ramos Horta said.

Australia's Foreign Affairs spokesman, Alexander Downer, says that is possible.

"The message that we've had ... is that these rebels, as they describe them, rebel members or former members of the Defence Force welcome the intervention by Australia or by the international community," Mr Downer said.

"They want the situation stabilised. Obviously want their grievances addressed."

"The East Timorese have set up a commission to investigate these grievances and what's happened.

"Hopefully, the East Timor Government will be able to negotiate its way through this."

 

Related Links Related Links

Timeline: Unrest in East Timor

Key dates in East Timor's journey to independence and subsequent unrest.

In pictures: Crisis in East Timor

Pictures of the unrest in East Timor.

 



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