Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Timor troops may be home next year

AUSTRALIA'S 750-strong troop commitment in East Timor could be over by the end of next year as security in the fledgling nation improves, the East Timorese Prime Minister has said.
And Xanana Gusmao remains confident that East Timorese will soon be working in Australia under a guest worker scheme, despite a setback this week when his country was excluded from a pilot program that will focus on Pacific Island nations.
Mr Gusmao told The Age yesterday the brittle security climate in Australia's tiny northern neighbour had continued to improve after shock attacks on him and President Jose Ramos-Horta this year.
"Right now it is very calm. Mums are going outside at night and (in the) evening with children playing around. We feel this is one of the best achievements that we have," he said.
Mr Gusmao said more than 50,000 displaced people had returned home in the past year, adding to the sense of security, while a rift between the East Timor army and police — a cause of 2006 riots that wrecked the capital Dili and prompted the return of Australian forces — had finally begun to heal.
Local security forces managed to capture remaining members of a small rebel group once led by Alfredo Reinado, a former major who broke with the Government in 2006 and was killed by guards during the February 11 attack at Mr Horta's house.
"The operation was very peaceful," Mr Gusmao said. "They gained the confidence of the people, (and) now our people can trust in our security forces."
As security improved, Mr Gusmao said he expected East Timor's army to concentrate on civil projects such as building roads, bridges and other basic infrastructure, allowing international troops to withdraw.
"What we are going to do is to move on the reform process. As we do this we can tell the Australian troops, 'thank you very much for your help'.
"It will depend on circumstances … it can be slow, the reduction (of troop numbers). But we feel that in 2009 it will be time for that to happen," he said.
Australian troops make up the bulk of the International Stabilisation Force, alongside New Zealanders.
Mr Gusmao said his country's political and economic future would be shored up by giving Timorese youth the chance to take up temporary jobs in Australia, but said he understood Australia wanted to test the program with Pacific Island nations.
Mr Gusmao said he was confident the scheme would expand to include East Timor after a review at the end of the year.
"If you consider that we have just ended a long cycle of violence and intolerance in our country from 2006, we see that the opportunity for our youth to come out and get jobs, it will increase the certainty of stability," he said.
A resistance fighter during Indonesia's 24-year occupation of East Timor, Mr Gusmao has long dominated the political stage, alongside Nobel prizewinner Jose Ramos-Horta and opposition Fretilin party leader Mari Alkatiri. Each has been prime minister; two have served as president.
But Mr Gusmao insisted a new generation of political leaders was emerging in East Timor.
"I have a cabinet of young people, educated, professional, well-committed. They understand our problems and trust what we are trying to do. We are trying to demonstrate that, from now on, the young generation of educated East Timorese must start giving something back to the people," he said.
Mr Gusmao refused to commit to staying on as PM until the next general election in 2011."We will see, I am old, I don't know what can happen to me." But he stressed he was staying on to carry out reform.
"We are still fragile, we have a lot on our shoulders to create jobs, and that is not something we can do very quickly, but we are trying to look at the possibility of how to push development," he said.
He plans to roll out an electricity grid by 2010 to give every home light and power. Mr Gusmao said that after quelling the dissent of the 2006 uprising and emerging from the turmoil of February's assassination attempts with few casualties and surprisingly little civil unrest, East Timor had a bright future.
"I am very confident, very confident. We face more difficult times again, but because everybody responded to the appeal to stop the violence, we are now living in this environment (of peace). It is a good start, and that's why I believe, with a clear vision, with all the state institutions working together to serve our people, I believe in the future," he said (

Picture 'Very confident': East Timorese Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao in Melbourne yesterday with his wife Kirsty Sword Gusmao. Photo: Jason South

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