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Foreign Minister discusses situation in East Timor

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MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS HON ALEXANDER DOWNER, MP TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE DATE: 25 May 2006 TITLE: 5AA Interview with Tony Pilkington and Keith Conlon TONY PILKINGTON: Minister, good morning and welcome. ALEXANDER DOWNER: Good morning, thanks very much. PILKINGTON: When did you start getting the news, Mr Downer, of how badly things were going? DOWNER: Well, it's been building up over the last two or three weeks really. It must be - I'm guessing here - but about six weeks or so ago that the East Timor - it might be longer ago than that actually - the East Timor Government sacked 595 out of 1400 of the soldiers in their Defence Force, so that's more than a third of their Defence Force. And those people have first of all been agitating politically, and then there has been the growth of some violence, there has been a series of incidents. So I've just been monitoring how this situation has been deteriorating over a bit of time, and it's really got a lot worse in the last couple of weeks. KEITH CONLON: Minister, from what you've been able to ascertain, were they sacked because of ethnic reasons, or because they were unsuitable, or they were, I don't know, from the other side politically? I mean did the government up there give a logical explanation for the sacking of nearly 600 troops? DOWNER: Well they were actually technically sacked for insubordination. They were insubordinate because they went on - you know, in military terms - because they went on strike, but the reason they went on strike was that they had some grievances in relation to pay and conditions and promotions. And they claim that because some of them are from, I think it's the west, I've got this the right way round, the western part of East Timor, that the Defence Force discriminated in favour of people from the eastern part of the country. Anyway, whatever the basis of their dispute, in the end they went on strike, and the East Timor Government thought that was inappropriate for a Defence Force, and so it sacked them. CONLON: What will be the terms of our engagement up there? I mean, the 1300 troops that we're sending up, will they be there simply to act as a police force, or will they be there to disarm this group of nearly 600? DOWNER: Well, we're sending General Gillespie, who's the deputy head of our Defence Force, we're sending him up there today - he'll be on his way now - to sit down with the East Timorese and work through those details. But our view is that our role should be essentially

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to stabilise the environment there so that the East Timorese themselves can get into negotiations with these rebels.

I think it's for them to conduct those negotiations. These rebel soldiers have said that they're pleased there's going to be the presence of Australian troops on the ground to stabilise the situation, and that they are prepared to negotiate. So hopefully just the presence of the troops there will lead to some process to deal with this problem. But, having said that, I can't be sure it will, and so we need to talk through the terms of engagement fairly closely with the East Timorese.

PILKINGTON : And we understand that a former colleague of yours in the Parliament, Robert Hill, is negotiating with several other countries at this stage, what might be involved there?

DOWNER: Well no, he's not so much talking - I'll come back to him in a second though - I've been talking to the Portugese Foreign Minister, and the Portugese have been invited to send support, they're going to send, I think, a company of rapid reaction police, kind of a bit like staff force, a company of 120, but they won't get there for two to three weeks.

The New Zealanders are having a Cabinet meeting this morning, to make a decision, but I think they're very likely to send some troops to support our troops, to work in with our troops. The Malaysians have also been invited to send support, but we're not sure at this stage what the Malaysians will do.

Now what Robert Hill's role will be is to liaise with the United Nations, to make sure that the secretary general and the members of the Security Council, particularly the five permanent members of the Security Council, know what we're doing, understand what we're doing, and support what we're doing. So he has quite a big diplomatic job to do there.

CONLON: Do you anticipate any problems with the UN on that?

DOWNER: I don't, no. I don't think there'll be any problems with them at all, because this is an invitation. I mean we've said - I've been saying to Jose Ramos Horta, to the East Timorese Foreign Minister - look, there's just no way we're going there without a very warm

and effusive invitation, and the invitation can't just come from the President, or just from the Prime Minister, it's got to come from both, as well as ideally the Speaker of the Parliament. And it has been signed by all of them, so I think the United Nations will be perfectly happy with that.

PILKINGTON: Getting on towards 13 past seven, we're talking to Foreign Affairs Minister, Alexander Downer, up in Canberra.

CONLON: Just back with that imponderable, the danger situation, it sounds like there's been firing again overnight in the hills and so on, our troops will be ready to engage if they have to?

DOWNER: They will have to be, yes. I'm certainly not somebody who believes you should send troops into a dangerous environment, and not give them a reasonably robust capacity to defend themselves. Obviously you just wouldn't send troops if they couldn't do that. And you're right, overnight there have been reports of shooting, of gunfire being heard, we've got

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those reports from our embassy, and also of some people fleeing from Dili, so still the situation looks pretty unstable and unsatisfactory.

CONLON: And is there going to be a diplomatic process as well, which might involve trying to get those troops, the sacked troops, maybe getting them back into the army?

DOWNER: Well, I think that's a sensitive issue for the East Timorese, they've set up a - or they're setting up a Commission of Inquiry into the whole incident, and they're going to look at each of the 595 cases, and I think it's conceivable that they will take some of them back into the army, but we'll just have to wait and see.

PILKINGTON : Minister, as a result of the unrest, is it logical to imagine that we'll have more boat people trying to get down here now?

DOWNER: I don't think so, no, I think that's pretty unlikely. It's an hour's flight between Australia and East Timor. It's quite a long way to go, and it's potentially a rather hazardous journey. I think the presence of the troops there will give people a lot of comfort that the situation is somewhat under control. I mean I think that's much more likely to be what'll happen, that they'll stay at home.

PILKINGTON : And have you got any sense of how long we might need to be there?

DOWNER: I don't really, I would hope that being a stabilisation force, that they'll quickly fix up their political problems and themselves solve a lot of the crises, rather than us having to do that, and we'll be able to downsize. I suppose the best analogy I'd use is the deployment we've made to the Solomon Islands, or deployments we've made. We've gone in there from time to time, we've stabilised the situation, we've withdrawn, or partly withdrawn as we're doing at the moment, from the Solomon Islands, because we think that the political situation has settled down, but ready to go back if things start to go wrong.

PILKINGTON : Minister, a busy day, thanks for your time.

DOWNER: It's a pleasure.