11 March 2010

Foreign Soldiers should stay out of Timorese Politics

Click here to see the complete press release and relevant documents in both English and Tetum. 

Update, 25 March. Australia has cancelled this program.

La’o Hamutuk calls on the military and civilian commanders of Australian and other foreign soldiers in Timor-Leste to direct their soldiers to avoid involvement in local politics, including asking Timorese citizens their political views or encouraging them to identify with one political grouping or another.

We recently received the attached letter from Mr. Mateus Fernandes Sequeira, Chefe do Suco of Lore I (Lautem District), which describes Australian and New Zealand military observers inviting local residents to a community meeting on 23 February. After arriving by helicopter, the soldiers asked the residents to raise their hands if they like the AMP government better than the previous one. In addition to this being none of Australia’s business, coercing people to publicly express their political leanings in this newly sovereign nation is dangerous and destructive. It can lead to violence or retaliation, undercutting the “stabilisation” that the International Stabilisation Force (ISF) is ostensibly here to secure.

The Constitution of this young democracy guarantees its citizens the right to support any legal political party they want, and to keep that preference private if they choose to. This is especially important given the history of Timor-Leste, where people were often killed, arrested or tortured for their political beliefs during the illegal Indonesian occupation, and where sectarian differences have led to violence.

If Australian soldiers don’t understand this, we suggest a thought experiment: Imagine that Indonesian soldiers landed in an isolated village in rural Queensland, called local residents together, and told them to raise their hands if they liked Kevin Rudd’s government better than John Howard’s. If you think this isn’t appropriate in your country, it’s not appropriate here.

When ISF first came to Timor-Leste in 2006, there were many reports of Australian soldiers pressuring Timorese citizens to align with or against a particular leader or faction. In the crisis atmosphere, and with the soldiers’ inadequate orientation and inexperience, this was regrettable but perhaps understandable. However, after nearly four years here, they should know better. We hope that the incident in Lore I is an isolated case (although we have heard otherwise), and encourage the commanders of foreign troops here to make sure that nothing like this happens again.

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