Troops on their way to East Timor
East Timor's Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta has invited Australia, New Zealand, Portugal, and Malaysia to send troops to his country. Australia and New Zealand had already said they would despatch forces speedily if they were requested, and Portugal has quickly accepted Ramos-Horta's request. It is likely that the first troops to arrive in the country will be thirty or so Kiwis from Burnham military base near Christchurch - they could be touching down in Dili in less than twenty four hours. Australian Defence Minister Brendan Nelson is talking about sending about 1,300 troops to 'bring the rebels to heel'.
The request for troops comes after an emergency meeting of Prime Minister Alkatiri's Cabinet yesterday. With firefights breaking out on the outskirts of Dili and reports coming in of violence in other parts of the country, Alkatiri's goverment has been forced to revise its forecast of a quick end to the crisis in East Timor, and forget about its boast that it could handle the security situation without the assistance of a foreign military force. Talk of a peace deal brokered by President Gusmao has also been abruptly dropped.
ABC is reporting that leaders of the rebel soldiers and military police are supportive of the idea of foreign intervention, because they think that a foreign force will rein in East Timor's government and its army. If they really believe this they will soon be disappointed, because the Australian-led intervention force will not act as any sort of mediator between the government and the rebels. Brendan Nelson's aggressive comments ought to make that clear.
This new intervention in East Timor throws down the gauntlet to the Australasian left. Many of the people who supported the intervention of 1999 are likely to be much more troubled about this new venture. The brutal behaviour of the Alkatiri government and the success of the rebellion in winning popular support in the western part of the country undermine the notion that the Australian-led force is embarking on some sort of righteous mission. The popular support which the rebels enjoy means that any efforts they make to resist the intervention will be far harder to deal with than those of the hated militia in 1999. Australia and New Zealand may be embarking upon an open-ended and costly mission.
Update: seems Helen Clark is a little tepid about the prospect of deployment - she's asking for more information before she sends troops. Meanwhile East Timor solidarity campaigner Maire Leadbeater is arguing against intervention.