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Timor Leste: `Foreign soldiers should stay out of Timorese politics'

By La’o Hamutuk

March 11, 2010 -- 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 (also below) 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 February 23. After arriving by helicopter, the soldiers asked the residents to raise their hands if they like the AMP [Alliance of the Parliamentary Majority coalition] 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.

La’o Hamutuk, the Timor-Leste Institute for Development Monitoring and Analysis, is a Timorese civil society organisation founded in 2000. We monitor and report on activities of international agencies, systems and institutions in Timor-Leste to try to make them more aware of and responsive to the needs of the people of this country. More information is available from our office in Farol or on our website.

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Unofficial translation from handwritten Tetum by La’o Hamutuk.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF TIMOR-LESTE
SUB DISTRICT ADMINISTRATION OF LOSPALOS
SUCO LORE I

No. 01/ADM/SL.I/III/2010
>From : Chief of Suco Lore I
To :
Issue : Recommendation

Based on this recommendation, as Chief of Suco of Lore I, I inform that on 23 February 2010, military observers from Australia came to conduct a socialization in our Suco Lore I, Aldeia Vailana (on the coast).

As Village Chief I don’t agree or accept with some of the words that they spoke at that moment. Because at that moment they asked our community which government is better, the previous government or the current AMP government. Then they also asked of our community that whoever accepts the AMP government should raise their hands.

Because of this, we as leaders of the community see that this can create conflict.

Their invitation letter to us is attached.

Mateus Fernandes Sequeira

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