25 March 2010

Australia cancels problematic military "research"

On 11 March 2010, La'o Hamutuk issued a press release Foreign Soldiers should stay out of Timorese Politics describing a "research" project conducted by the Australia-New Zealand International Stabilization Force (ISF) which had upset residents of Lore I in Lautem District. Click here for more about how ISF asked people to raise their hands to indicate if they like the AMP government more than the previous one, as reported by the Chefe do Suco of Lore I.

The relevant authorities reacted quickly, and Australian ambassador Peter Heyward invited La'o Hamutuk to his embassy the following day to discuss the issue with himself, New Zealand ambassador Tim McIvor and ISF commander Col. Simon Stuart. We learned that the Lore meeting was one of about 90 already conducted by ISF as part of a 2-3 year research project, and that the ISF considered it as civilian, academic research even though the researchers, working through double translation, were outnumbered by their uniformed, armed military escorts. We explained that this kind of activity could be expected to disturb people in remote areas who had decades of horrendous experiences with foreign soldiers asking political questions and the human right violations which ensued if they didn't like the answers.

On 25 March, the Canberra Times reported that the Australian Defence Force has terminated this 'research' project. La'o Hamutuk appreciates this prompt response to the concerns of the people of Timor-Leste, especially Lore I, which we brought to their attention. 

Defence pulls plug on Timor research

Canberra Times, 25 March 2010
By Philip Dorling National Affairs Correspondent

The Australian Defence Force has terminated a social research project in East Timor after allegations that Australian soldiers and civilian researchers were interfering in East Timorese politics. The Defence Department yesterday confirmed that it had axed a two- to three-year program of community surveys being conducted by civilian researchers of the Defence Science and Technology Organisation.

According to Defence, DSTO's community operations research team has been conducting meetings in communities around East Timor ''seeking local views and attitudes on a range of issues affecting peace and stability in East Timor''. The results of the research were intended to contribute to the Defence Force's ''awareness of the security needs of the people and Government of East Timor''.

However, in February this year members of the DSTO team, accompanied by armed Australian Defence Force personnel, travelled to a village in eastern Lautem District and reportedly asked people at a meeting to raise their hands if they liked the present Coalition Government better than the former Fretilin government. Village chief Mateus Fernandes Sequeira subsequently lodged a complaint about the incident, saying such activity could create tension and conflict. The East Timorese human rights group, La'o Hamutuk, said earlier this month that calling on people to reveal publicly their political allegiances was ''dangerous and destructive'' in a society still recovering from decades of conflict and violence. East Timor's constitution guarantees the right to keep political views private. At a meeting with La'o Hamutuk on March 12, Australian ambassador Peter Heyward and International Security Force commander Colonel Simon Stuart said that more than 90 community meetings had been held as part of an ADF ''longitudinal study'' since mid-2008, and that the project would continue. They said there was no question of asking people to make a comparison between the present coalition and the former Fretilin government.

However, a Defence Department spokesperson yesterday confirmed that the community survey project had been terminated as ''an operational decision taken after reviewing the appropriateness of continuing the study''. ''Defence maintains that at no point during the community forum at Suco of Lore village on 23 February 2010 were participants asked to indicate political alignment by raising their hands, as was claimed by La'o Hamutuk,'' the spokesperson said. ''Defence does, however, accept that the translation process across three languages [English, Tetum and the local dialect] may have caused the confusion at the community forum ... At no point during any community forums have questions been posed by researchers about political alignment. Defence regrets this misunderstanding. ''In the interest of maintaining positive relationships with our stakeholders throughout East Timor, the study was ceased.''

The abrupt cancellation of the East Timor community operational research project comes as an embarrassment for DSTO, which featured the study together with similar research in Afghanistan in the first issue of its Defence Science Australia magazine, published this month. DSTO lead researcher Alison Hickman has highlighted the risks associated with social research in ''unconventional conflicts, such as stabilisation or counter-insurgency operations, where long-term objectives are not clear and there are less tangible indicators of success''. ''If the approach and principles of researchers are not correct in the way they conduct themselves, how they empower civilians, and in the techniques used to elicit information, then taskforce operations mounted on the basis of this information may be ineffective, or worse,'' Ms Hickman told the DSTO magazine.

Highly regarded East Timor expert Clinton Fernandes, of the Australian Defence Force Academy, said yesterday that the DSTO surveys appeared to be ''amateurish'' and that the Defence Force would have been better served by engaging advisers with close knowledge of local conditions and attitudes.

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