Anzacs against democracy

With presidential elections imminent Scott Hamilton looks at the role of Australian 'security forces' in East Timor.

East Timor’s Fretilin party has revealed that Australian troops stopped a convoy of its election campaigners at gunpoint and threatened to kill one of them last week. The convoy of Fretilin vehicles was on its way back from an election rally in the eastern town of Gleno on March 26 when an Australian army vehicle appeared. Australian troops brandished their guns at the Fretilin campaigners, and the driver of one car was pulled from his vehicle, trod on and had a gun placed to his head. When the driver attempted to protest, the Australian holding the gun shouted ’Fuck you. I’ll kill you’.

Mari Alkatiri, the secretary of Fretilin and ousted prime minister, said that his party was furious with the actions of the Australians. Alkatiri and Fretilin presidential candidate Francisco 'Lu Olo' Gutterres were both part of the convy travelling from Gleno and Alkatiri witnessed the Australian troops' actions.

The intimidation of Fretilin campaigners came in the same week that threats were made against Alkatiri by the head of East Timor’s National Electoral Commission, Martinho Gusmao, who is a relative of East Timor President Xanana Gusmao. Martinho Gusmao accused Alkatiri of showing that he was ‘incapable of leadership’, and threatened Fretilin with unspeficied sanctions because of a speech Alkatiri made in a refugee camp near Dili. Alkatiri had told the refugees, who have been battling eviction for months and were the victims of a bloody attack by Australian troops in February, that the new party formed by the President and supported by Prime Minister Jose Ramos-Horta was a ‘nest of liars’.

Last week’s incident can only be understood in the context of the growing resistance of East Timorese to the Horta-Gusmao government and the Anzac occupation of their country. On March 21 the New Zealand government announced that it was sending two Iroquois helicopters and thirty-two support personnel to East Timor. The new forces join the 175 soldiers New Zealand has already contributed to the 1100-strong ‘Anzac battle group’ that has occupied East Timor since the middle of last year. New Zealand’s new contribution to the occupation followed a decision by John Howard’s government to send 150 more Australian police to East Timor. Helen Clark has claimed that the reinforcements being sent to East Timor will "provide additional transport for UN operations" designed to "ensure security" in the lead-up to presidential elections scheduled for April 9.

In reality, Clark and Howard’s reinforcements are a response to serious challenges to the authority of the Anzac occupation and East Timor’s pro-Anzac government. On February 23, the East Timor capital Dili erupted in protest after Australian troops and tanks invaded the refugee camp near Dili airport and fatally wounded two of its residents. Restaurants frequented by Australians were attacked and scores of UN vehicles were stoned. On March 4 a bungled raid by Australian and New Zealand troops killed five more East Timorese in the mountain south of Dili, which prompted thousands of residents of the city to raise barricades, burn tyres, and chant ‘Australians go home!’

John Howard has both praised and contributed to Bush’s ‘surge’ of new troops to Iraq and the reinforcements he and his ally in Wellington have dispatched to East Timor can be seen as a replication of the same strategy on a smaller scale. Howard and Clark hope that extra military and police muscle will help to deter new uprisings against the Horta-Gusmao government and against their own presence in East Timor.

To put the surge into some context, foreign troops now occupying Iraq make up about 0.5 per cent of the Iraqi population. The international security presence in East Timor makes up 0.3 per cent of that country's population - about 3000 in a population of 1 million.

For their part, Ramos-Horta and Gusmao have lost their old support base in Fretilin, the traditional party of the East Timorese masses, and some of the wider public has turned against them too, so closely are they associated with the Anzac occupation. The more popular support they lose, though, the more East Timor’s leaders rely upon the Anzacs to implement their policies. The February 23 attack on a refugee camp by Australian troops, for instance, followed months of unsuccessful attempts by Ramos-Horta and Gusmao to force internally displaced people to return to their homes. The camp that the Australians attacked had resisted Ramos-Horta by building barricades and aiming rocks and darts at attackers at local police. Horta gambled on the Australians to evict the refugees, but their bloody raid has only further eroded his popularity.

Mari Alkatiri, who planned to stand for president but eventually made way for the lesser-known Lu Olo, has become a lightning rod for dissatisfaction with the Anzac occupation and the Horta-Gusmao government it put in place. Alkatiri argues that last May’s military intervention was the culmination of a campaign by Australia to destabilise his government, which was trying to follow policies more independent of Australia. Alkatiri says that the intervention gave him no choice but to resign or start a bloodbath. He presents Fretilin's campaign for the presidency as an opportunity to reverse last year’s injustice, and deal a blow to Australian interference in East Timor. Weeks before yesterday’s incident he was claiming that Anzac forces were working to undermine his party's campaign. Last week’s incident backs up his allegations, and shows once again that Anzac forces are in East Timor to undermine rather than promote democracy.

April 6, 2007.

This article originally appeared on Reading the Maps on April 2.

  • Here's the Fretilin press release about the incident


    Media Release

    30 March 2007

    Fretilin to lodge protest against Australian military

    Fretilin, the largest political party in Timor-Leste (East Timor), will lodge a protest with the commander of Australian forces, Brigadier Mal Rerden, in relation to the unprovoked humiliation of a Fretilin member by the Australian army.

    The party will request that appropriate disciplinary action be taken by the Australian army against the officers involved and for a formal apology to be issued in relation to the incident.

    The incident, which was witnessed by party secretary general Mari Alkatiri, occurred on 26 March 2007 as a high level Fretilin delegation made their way to Dili from the western town of Gleno, Ermera district, after attending a mass rally held to support Lu'Olo's bid to become President of the Repubic.

    An Australian army vehicle attempted to push into a convoy of cars accompanying the Fretilin delegation and was refused entry. In the subsequent stand off, an Australian soldier pointed a gun to the driver while another soldier pulled one of the passengers from the vehicle, trod on him, and put a gun to his head. When the driver attempted to resist, the Australian soldier yelled, "Fuck you. I'll kill you'."

    A bodyguard of Alkatiri tried to intervene but was ordered to stand back. The Australian officer only retreated when ordered to do so by his commanding officer.

    Speaking from his residence in Dili, Alkatiri who will seek a meeting with Rerden, said that Fretilin was incensed by the actions of the Australian soldiers.

    "Our convoy of cars was on the way back from a successful rally which was entirely peaceful. My fellow colleague was not armed and posed no direct threat to the Australian military. It is completely unacceptable that this incident occurred and there was absolutely no justification for such humiliating treatment.

    "By making this protest we are not seeking any confrontation with the Australian military but we want to make it clear that we do not want any similar incidents to occur in the future" Alkatiri said.


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