Australia steps in as Indonesia washes its hand off East Timor?

Updated On: May 09, 2006

With its checkered involvement in East Timor, Indonesia is quick to evacuate what remains of its presence in East Timor as signs of troubles erupted in the past weeks.

The commander of the Wirasakti Regional Military Command, Col. APJ Noch Bola urged all Indonesians still in East Timor to immediately leave the former Indonesian province.  

Despite Indonesian departure, their lingering shadows hang over East Timor and play a large part in the recent riots by former soldiers. According to the Australian media, many in the East Timorese police force, including its chief, are from the old Indonesian administration, although many people who were working with the resistance have been recruited since then. But the fact is that the senior ranks of the organisation did work with Indonesian Government at the time.

The buck for East Timor’s future is now passed to UN. East Timor has asked the United Nations to deploy an international police force ahead of next year's elections. But Australia wants to get involved too. Australian Prime Minister John Howard said last week that he would be willing to help if asked. However, East Timor tries to play down its newfound dependence on AustraliaEast Timor's Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri says his country will soon have its internal unrest under control and has played down the need for Australian intervention.

One reason for his caution may be due to fear of Indonesia. Australian intervention is very sensitive for Indonesia. The latter’s spies and military intelligence in West Timor are closely watching what's happening across the border. In addition, Australian media detect hostility towards Australia amongst some Indonesian politicians and military and an increased incidence of Indonesian military speaking out against the loss of East Timor and “speaking in such a way as to suggest the horrors of the past never took place”. The rumors are not helping much either. Some reports circulated spotted some hundreds of the rioting soldiers headed for the mountains, creating concern about any Indonesian support for future insurgencies.

Nevertheless, given the situation, Australian intervention is very likely. Prime Minister Alkatiri has been under the Australian tutelage for some time. Back in 2002, when another set of riots broke out, the East Timor Press reported that Australian Prime Minister John Howard called on Alkatiri to condemn the violence and “offer whatever aid Dili requested”. Australia is also keen to develop East Timor’s oil and natural gas reserves. This time round, Mr Alkatiri is also keeping open the option of Australian troops. "We can keep really this open as a possibility, but I repeat again, for the situation right now we are still able to control it," he said.

Crisis highlights problems in Timor (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 7 May 2006)
E Timor confident of quelling unrest (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 26 April 2006)
Indonesians leaving East Timor after riot (Jakarta Post, 29 March 2006)
Thousands flee Timor militias (BBC, 3 September 1999)