Once again, Australia has been forced to intercede in East Timor, this time not against Indonesian militia, but to protect civilians from the conflict between government troops and a breakaway faction of around 600 soldiers.
It’s believed that 20 (who?) are feared dead or injured. Even a Korean businessman was shot in the neck but he’s recovering.
Aussie PM John Howard will be deploying 1300 troops to help settle the situation. Today, in a chaotic Dili, 130 Australian commandos has secured the international airport.
Howard said: "Given the deteriorating situation we will go ahead without any conditionality with the full deployment, and the 1300 will be in place in very short order."
Aussie Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Aus troops would play a peacekeeping role and will do all they can to avoid combat. His remarks may have something to do with Australians’ growing disenchantment with Oz participating in all sorts of conflict – Iraq, Afghanistan, Solomon Island, now East Timor, etc.
The Sydney Morning Herald said Malaysia had offered 25 defence personnel and a Hercules aircraft, while New Zealand had offered a company of troops and one or two Hercules.
But news.com.au said Malaysia would send hundreds of troops after receiving a request from the Dili government to help quell the uprising. A Kementah (Minintry of Defence) defence official said: "We will be sending troops but the size of the force will be released later on."
Another ministry official said the Malaysian contingent would leave tonight, and was expected to stay in the troubled nation for up to a month: "It's a military contingent. It consists of Malaysian armed forces and some police. It's 275 from the armed forces side, but we do not know the numbers of police yet."
Howard commented that: "I have little doubt that once all of our forces are there, there will be significant return of stability and normality, although there has been a loss of life and there's obviously great tension in Dili and a considerable amount of disorder. However, the system of government continues to operate."
The almost-civil-war has been due to sheer incompetence of the East Timorese PM, Mark Alkatiri, who is extremely unpopular because of his haughtiness. The person who has the charisma and influence is the contitutional but powerless head, Xanana Gusmao.
Then of course there's the dispute within the East Timor Defence Force. There are moral factors due to costs of living. One had been the unpopular and seemingly ridiculous tranfer of soldiers from the East to the West and vice versa. In such a poor country the transfer expenses had been too much to bear.
Then, there are allegations of discrimination against some of the soldiers in terms of pay, promotions, conditions. The fact that the people are generally wallowing in abject poverty hasn’t helped.
One political analyst said problems had been simmering since the army was formed during United Nations stewardship of the former Indonesian province from 1999-2002.
He said: "The problem goes back to the UN intervention - they didn't know what to do with the military. Then they developed the police force, saying they didn't want the military in law and order."
An unwanted armed band of frustrated troops coupled with an uncaring PM was just asking for trouble. Around 600 soldiers, or nearly a third of the military, deserted their barracks in February, complaining of poor conditions and bias in the ranks.
The rebel leader, Commander Reinado was one of the 600 sacked by the government after going on strike over pay and conditions. He actually welcomed the deployment of up to 1300 Australian troops. He says his goal is not to topple the government, but to seek justice and the creation of a professional defence force.
Reinado had been trained by Australia. He told Australia’s ABC: "I respect them. We will happily shake hands. Tell the Australian troops don't forget to bring some VB for us."
VB stands for Victoria Bitter, a very popular brand of beer from the State of Victoria. Non-Muslims Malaysian students studying in Melbourne would be fairly familiar with VB – Ktemoc is ;-)