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Transcript of doorstop interview: Parliament House, Canberra: 24 May 2006: [East Timor]

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DATE: 24 May 2006

TITLE: Doorstop Interview - Parliament House, Canberra.

REPORTER: Have you spoken to your immediate counter-part there or Prime Minister (inaudible)?

ALEXANDER DOWNER - MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS Look I spoke yesterday evening with Jose Ramos Horta about the situation on the ground there and of course I’ve been in constant touch with him over the last few weeks. East Timor is at a situation - is at a state now where the Government is going to meet during the course of today - and by the Government I mean the Prime Minister and the President I understand as well as some of the Ministers and work out whether they need any external assistance or whether they don’t. Of course, that decision will be based on the analysis that they’ve done of where they’re at in terms of the security situation. Our sense is that as of now the security situation is poor and has the potential to deteriorate further. There has been some reports of some fighting during the course of this morning around the military barracks area just outside of Dili. So, we’re actually very concerned about the security situation there. There is no sign of it getting better at this stage. But what decisions the East Timor Government will make is entirely a matter for them and I suspect that if they do want some assistance they would look to assistance from us in terms of re-enforcements for their police and perhaps some military assistance to help secure Dili and the civil government. But, they’re not at that point yet; they’re still giving some consideration to what they might need in terms of outside assistance or whether they can press on without any outside assistance. So, we’ll have to wait and see.

REPORTER: What responsibility does Australia have to take given our initial involvement in setting up the institutions in East Timor?

DOWNER: Well of course we don’t take, have a direct responsibility - the East Timorese being an independent country are responsible for their own destiny. It’s not quite - probably a bit of an over claim to say Australia set up their institutions - the United Nations mission is there - they did a wonderful job I think over quite some years helping the East Timorese set up their institutions and we obviously played a significant role in assisting them. Having said all that, I mean, the East Timorese are responsible for their own destiny, the East Timorese Government and the commander of the military made the decision to dismiss 595 members of the East Timorese military. To put that into some perspective, East

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Timor’s army had about 1400 soldiers, so dismissing 595 out of 1400 was likely to cause, if I could use a diplomatic phrase, a degree of concern. Of course that has indeed happened. They are now setting up a commission of inquiry to look into the grievances of the 595 and we hope that that process can proceed and that more than that, the differences can be resolved peacefully. We’d like to see the differences resolved consistent with the laws and the constitution of East Timor and also consistent with international norms of human rights.

REPORTER: Would you like to see those so-called deserters pulled back into the military in some way?

DOWNER: That’s a matter for the East Timorese - I wouldn’t claim to know any of them. They’ve got to look at the grievances of each of the individual people and work out whether they can resolve those grievances or whether they can’t and what the merit or

otherwise of those grievances is. I mean, they’re setting up a commission of inquiry and it would be good to see that process be successful at least in reducing the tensions.

REPORTER: Are you expecting to hear back today?

DOWNER: Not necessarily. Not necessarily today. I’m actually planning to go to Japan this evening for a Pacific Leaders meeting, to meet with Prime Minister Koizumi and Foreign Minister Aso while I’m there. So, I’m planning at this stage to continue with that,

but we’ll just wait and see how the day unfolds.

REPORTER: Is this an example of what can happen if the international community cuts and runs too early?

DOWNER: Well, you could make that argument obviously. I mean, I certainly think that it’s important that the international community is sustaining it’s presence in sustaining democracy, then you’ve got to judge very carefully when is an appropriate time to leave. In this case, I suppose that will be debated for some time - whether there should have been more UN people on the ground or whether there shouldn’t have been. I think in the end you have to really though - to sheet home the issue to this one question of the failure to resolve differences between the 595 and the rest of the defence force, and it’s not for us to say who is to blame for that. Because we are not ever going to be sufficiently familiar with the grievances of the individual people and whether they are legitimate or whether they’re not. But I would particularly focus on that having been a spark which, in particular, has led to the violence that we’re now seeing. I mean, there may be other underlying political issues as their so often are in situations like this, but, they could certainly have been managed without this additional factor.

REPORTER: What’s the situation (inaudible) telling the East Timorese can provide or Australia is willing to provide as far as troops are concerned?

DOWNER: Well I’ve made it clear that we could provide some police over a period of time we could build up the numbers of police because we do have police deployments, as you know, in the Solomon Islands and we re-enforced them there recently

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as a result of the upsurge in violence in April. But, we could certainly provide some police very quickly and we could gradually build those numbers up over a week or so. I’m not going to go specifically into numbers, and we can provide military support very quickly and we have substantial military resources available that can be deployed in a 24 hour period.

REPORTER: (Inaudible) the Indonesian Government of the situation in East Timor?

DOWNER: I did. A bit over a week ago, I haven’t personally since then.

REPORTER: (Inaudible)

DOWNER: Look, I think they’re interested in our analysis and our judgment about it and are happy with how we’re handling it. We’re happy that they’re interested in the issue as well. But I don’t think, you know, just in case you’re wondering, I don’t think the Indonesian Government has any intention of sending security forces there.

REPORTER: Would those Australian police be armed?

DOWNER: Well look, they haven’t even been - haven’t even gone their yet - we haven’t even had a request - we’ll get into all that sort of detail if and when that time arises. Obviously that would be - we’d have to make judgements about that.

REPORTER: Any thought of evacuating non-essential Australians there?

DOWNER: Well, there’s plenty of thought and we have contingency plans and of course that’s one of the functions that the military could perform if they absolutely had to perform an assisted evacuation. But at this stage, there doesn’t seem to be any need for that. But, we are monitoring that hour by hour. I would make the point that where violence is occurring it’s not been directed towards foreigners of any shape or form.

REPORTER: Mr Downer what do you say to critics at the moment who are saying this was predictable, particularly given the divisions within the Government of East Timor - between the old guard that’s travelled overseas, and the young ones who stayed - the divisions in the military between those two, even if this crisis is solved there are long term problems there?

DOWNER: Well I don’t know if they’d be critics. I think there obviously are political divisions in East Timor. I mean, there are in Australia or there are in America. There are political divisions everywhere, and, you know, there are different labels that are attached to the different groups there, but, I would say that the key issue here has been the issue of the 595. As I made the point earlier, there is that issue - I’m not getting into the rights or wrongs of that and being judgemental about it, but I think that issue has been, I think, an issue that has really clearly triggered the violence and where there are other divisions for other reasons - whatever reasons they may be - and other debates in the country which were perfectly manageable without this issue being thrown in, those other issues have sort of come more to the fore than might have otherwise been the case, that’s how…

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REPORTER: .. do those divisions relate to to that (inaudible?

DOWNER: .. not necessarily. These are a lot of divisions over a lot of different - I think in any society there are supporters of the Prime Minister and opponents of the Prime Minister and there are supporters of Fretilin and opponents of Fretlan, there are divisions within Fretilin. I mean, there are divisions in our own Labor Party, supporters and opponents of Mr Beazley, so, you know, you get that sort of thing.

REPORTER: What are the chances that it will escalate into civil war, Mr Downer?

DOWNER: I don’t think it will escalate into civil war. I don’t think, just to sort of - you get civil war argument a little bit, perhaps people use that phrase a little bit too loosely. I am reading a book at the moment about the American civil war and it reminds me of one of the preconditions of the civil war is you essentially need two administrations, competing administrations in the one land. And you don’t have that. There isn’t any suggestion here of a competing administration being set up to challenge the current administration in Dili, of President Gusmao and Prime Minister Alkatiri. That’s not what’s happening. So I mean,

there are rebels and dissidents clearly, and there has been gunfire between them and the military and perhaps the police. But that’s a far cry from saying civil war. I don’t think East Timor’s heading towards civil war.

REPORTER: How would you feel about Australian soldiers taking sides in the fight between East Timorese soldiers and rebel soldiers?

DOWNER: No they wouldn’t. If they were to go at all, the Australian soldiers and the Australian police would only help to secure the capital, not to get involved in what you described.

REPORTER: It has been reported that President Gusmao now has a health problem - a bad back - is there any mention of that….


REPORTER: Bad back.

DOWNER: I’m not sure about his back.

REPORTER: And for that reason he has kept a low profile over….

DOWNER: Well I think in the last day or two he hasn’t been very well, but I don’t think there’s any significant reason for that - I mean, he’s generally been pretty well, maybe not very well for the last day or so but I read nothing into that.

REPORTER: What do you say to Labor’s claims that the Government has been focussing too much on Iraq and has dropped its ball in the region?

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DOWNER: Well, it’s obviously completely absurd - it’s puerile. Summed up in one word and it’s puerile. This is, everything the Government says and everything thing the Government does is wrong and therefore vote for us. I mean, you’ve got to be more mature than that - I would have thought it’s pretty obvious we’ve been enormously focussed on this issue. We’ve been making public comments about it. We’ve got our troops ready. We’ve got our ships ready. I would have thought we completely and comprehensively demonstrated the reverse. The Parliament has sat all through this year - we’re up until, what’s today, May the 23rd or so, and the Labor Party hasn’t asked in the Parliament a single question, a single question, about East Timor, the Solomon Islands or our own region. They haven’t even asked a question about Indonesia. Honestly, the hypocrisy of it.

REPORTER: Mr Downer, a question on Indonesia.

DOWNER: And you did work for the Labor Party once. Just a joke.

REPORTER: I know, you often make it.

DOWNER: Not meant in an (inaudible) way.

REPORTER: It is reported out of Jakarta last night that Mr Howard will meet with President Yudhoyono in Bali on 28/29 June. Can you confirm that?

DOWNER: I’m not confirming any dates and I don’t think that the meeting is likely to take place in Bali by the way; it’s likely to take place in Indonesia and not in Jakarta. And secondly, let me say that I think it is very likely, but still not certain, that there will be a meeting in the next few weeks between President Yudohoyno and John Howard.

REPORTER: Are you confident about the intelligence you’re getting about East Timor and this isn’t just a rogue elements situation?

DOWNER: I am confident. I think the intelligence is good. Intelligence, you get lots and lots of pieces of intelligence and it’s a fine balance of judgement to know what to take seriously and what not, what’s right, what’s wrong - you never really know until you look back at it in retrospect.

REPORTER: Is there any more you can tell us about the violence this morning in the barracks?

DOWNER: There has been just some fighting, not in the barracks, but near the barracks and apparently there has been some gunshot fire, but, I have no reports of any casualties.

REPORTER: Do youhave any idea of how many casualities there has been over the last few days?

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DOWNER: Jose Ramos Horta told me last night that one person has been killed and six have been injured. That’s what he told me. I don’t have any update on that.

REPORTER: Is their a future for the East Timorese army?

DOWNER: Well I hope so, I hope so.

REPORTER: Have any Australians actually been voluntarily evacuated, have they taken up any offer of (inaudible)?

DOWNER: I don’t think so, no. I’d have to double check that but I don’t think so.

REPORTER: On the United Nations Minister. Have you actually been talking to the UN as well about (inaudible)?

DOWNER: Well there’s a UN Special - Secretary General special representative, Dr. Hasegawa, who has actually been in New York recently because the UN has been debating this question of the mandate of UNOTIL, the United Nations Mission in East Timor. That has been extended; it was extended the other day by the Security Council for 30 days pending consideration of these issues. So, I think, I’m not 100% sure, I think he’s back in Dili, but there’s been contact by our officials with him, I haven’t personally been in touch with him.

I think the United Nations is obviously monitoring the situation closely, but, if for example the United Nations were somehow to want some sort of a new force to go back in, I mean, there is small numbers of police and military in East Timor anyway under UN auspices, but very few. If they wanted a substantial increase that would require a new Security Council resolution and if that were to happen it would take a good deal of time. It’s not to say it couldn’t be done, but I mean it’s something that would take weeks, it couldn’t be done in hours or days.

REPORTER: (Inaudible)

DOWNER: It’s an enormous challenge, I could write a book about it. It took long enough, as the demonstrators in Sydney and Melbourne at the time made clear.

REPORTER: Peter Costello’s performance in parliament this week, is he proving to anyone do you think that he should be made Prime Minister sooner rather than later?

DOWNER: Well I think there are two things about that that I’d say - the first is that Peter Costello’s performed very ably in parliament, as he always does. And second is, I would have thought, more to the point, it is just a pathetic performance from the Labor Party, just pathetic. I mean, you know, if the Labor Party was on the threshold of becoming the Government then I think they would be a lot more penetrating and engaged in the parliament

and apart from sort of fusillades of abuse, directed towards Ministers and towards Peter

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Costello - I would have thought is kind of a sad performance for the Labor Party. This has been a great opportunity for them and they’ve failed.

REPORTER: Did the Prime Minister take part in the National Security Council meeting yesterday from Ireland?

DOWNER: He was in Ireland.

REPORTER: Yes, but he didn’t phone in or (inaudible)?

DOWNER: No, I spoke to him though, as he’s been saying this morning, I’ve been in touch with him of course - had a long conversation with him about it all.

REPORTER: Is this why he’s coming back a day early, because of this, because..

DOWNER: .. well I think he said the other day he’s coming back anyway a little early because he wants to go to the Australia-Greece - I’m going to get it right this time - football. I used to call it soccer, but I read what happened to Steve Bracks. The Australia-Greece football game in Melbourne, but obviously it will be good to have him back anyway in this context.