The ADF operation against the renegade Major Reinado has once again sparked tensions in Dili’s streets. While “East-West” tensions have subsided considerably – a testimony to their relatively shallow roots in East Timorese society – the recent violence has displaced a further 5000 Timorese in the capital. After protests over rice distribution a fortnight ago, the ever-present tensions in the Dili are now focused on both the ADF and the Portuguese presence in the country.

The operation against Reinado comes in the wake of existing spike in resentment against ADF in recent weeks after the killing of two Timorese in an IDP camp. Two factors lie behind these resentments. The first is one of perceptions: on the streets of Dili there is a widespread suspicion that Australia has “interests” beyond creating a stable environment, specifically in oil and gas. Similarly, the Portuguese presence is suspected of having interests in supporting the Portuguese affiliations of the state. The fact that the ADF is not under UN “blue-helmet” enhances the perceptions of national interests at play, and makes it harder for the ADF to establish its role as a neutral player seeking to guarantee stability.

The second, and more substantial source of resentment concerns the constitution of the Australian contingent. While recent events demonstrate the ADF is an essential presence, UNMIT quickly became a policing mission after the ADF’s success in quelling hostilities between Timorese security forces. The ADF is not trained in this role, and heavily armed soldiers are ill-suited to civilian style policing and patrols in Dili streets. Instead, the ADF should harderbe reserved for serious armed incidents, and the type of action currently proceeding against Major Reinado.

While Reinado enjoys some support among sections of disaffected youth from the west, and some ex-veterans and security force members, his support and capacity to provoke “civil war” are greatly exaggerated by his own rhetoric. Most tellingly, none the major opposition parties support Reinado’s stated goal of delaying upcoming elections to resolve the military-political crisis, and hold a referendum on the constitution.

The greatest mid-term risk to political stability in East Timor would be a greatly delayed or widely disputed election. Any concerns over the conduct of the election by government or opposition parties will have to be met by systematic and large scale international monitoring. The net effect of the presence of armed gangs – if left unchecked – will be to discourage that in certain regions. For this reason, action against Reinado is necessary, and well overdue, if elections are to be viable.

Undoubtedly, the blowback from a failed or drawn out operation will be a steep rise in protests, and rioting in the capital. Equally, Reinado may become a symbolic focus for wider grievances. In the worst case scenario, Timor may see a return to low-level armed resistance in the mountain redoubts by some disaffected former soldiers, and police, and veterans. 

The greater risk to political stability in East Timor remains an election compromised by the presence of armed groups in the countryside.

In this context, it is imperative that DFAT be prudent and sober in its ongoing threat assessment and travel advisories. While the respected figures of President Gusmao and Prime Minister Ramos-Horta maintain that Reinado must face justice, along with Rogerio Lobato, the great majority of East Timorese will follow.

While safety must be the primary concern, most Australians on the ground work in Dili, and are well informed and prudent. To pre-emptively evacuate all those who will soon act as election monitors, and to deter others who will shortly arrive, risks playing into the hands of a much darker agenda, and risks extending the political crisis further.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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