The birth of Timor Leste has not been a particularly happy episode for Indonesia-Australia ties.
Thus, at a time of testy relations between Indonesia and Australia over Papua, as the former territory annexed by Indonesia East Timor descends into chaos andIndonesia decides to evacuate its last remaining citizens and wash its hands off the problems, Australia steps in to save the day. Australia has put its forces on standby a few weeks ago. Therefore when the formal request for help came from Timor Leste, Australian troops arrived in Timor in no time.
Before the actual breakdown in order, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told Parliament: 'We've prepositioned some military assets in northern Australia, including naval vessels, aircraft and even some troops, to enable a rapid response and to assist with evacuation or some other form of assistance if it's required.' When the call came on 25 May 2006, Australia immediately deployed 150 advance quick reaction troops to secure the airport and will be dispatching 1500 troops in total to secure order in the new state.
On the same day, a collection of foreign troops from Australia, New Zealand, Portugal and Malaysia flew into East Timor to prevent the collapse of the fragile nation as gun battles raged near the East Timorese President's office, leaving at least nine dead and 27 wounded. The situation increasingly looks like a civil war. President Xanana Gusmao has wired an urgent appeal to the UN Security Council for a full-fledged peacekeeping force.
The young Timorese government has had its hands full with handling the situation. Timor Leste troops were deployed near the site of a shootout with comrades who had been sacked. But when nearly half (42.9%) of East Timor’s 1400-strong military had been sacked and turned into renegade soldiers with rumours of re-grouping near the mountains, remnants of the military and the small police detachment are overstretched. The insurgents are threatening guerilla warfare. Australian intelligence had also received reports over the past two days that 'parts of Dili and other parts of the country are descending into violence'.
At the start of the violent shootout in East Timor which claimed the lives of 2 soldiers, New Zealand's defence force spokesman Mike Shatford said a platoon of around 30 soldiers was on standby for deployment to the troubled nation. The number of New Zealander force was doubled with the seriousness of the situation to 30. Australia had been quick and forthcoming with this assistance, saying that it is ready to go into East Timor with or without UN authorization as long as the East Timorese government requests it. 'We've made it clear that we are ready to offer assistance to East Timor if it's needed and if it's requested by the East Timorese government directly or indirectly through the United Nations,' its Foreign Minister added. It is not Australia’s first intervention as it had led a UN-sanctioned intervention force to East Timor in 1999 to quell violence by pro-Indonesian militias after East Timorese voted for independence from Jakarta.
What is surprising is that one of ASEAN’s own Malaysia has pledged a sizable force to East Timor, dwarfing the contributions from New Zealand (60 soldiers) orPortugal (120 soldiers). Malaysia is flexing its peacekeeping military muscle in the territory that might eventually become an ASEAN member with time. Malaysian contribution may mitigate or challenge the cycle of dependence that East Timor has on Oceanic countries like Australia which also dominates the economic development of gas and oil reserves in East Timor. It may take some time for the implications to set in as Malaysia’s deployment and performance in East Timorserves as an important barometer to test the flexibility of ASEAN’s interpretation of the principle of non-interference.
Troops sent to East Timor as tension increases (The Independent, 26 May 2006)
Australia, NZ offer troops for Timor unrest (Straits Times, 24 May 2006)
Australian, N.Z. troops headed for East Timor (Globe and Mail, 26 May 2006)