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Saturday, September 25, 1999 Published at 12:52 GMT 13:52 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Rift over Timor peace mission

Arrests like these have enraged the Thai military

By BBC South East Asia correspondent Simon Ingram

The international force for East Timor has yet to reach full strength, but already differences have emerged over how the mission should be handled on the ground.

East Timor
Military officials from Thailand, which holds the deputy command of Interfet, have criticised Australian troops for being unduly aggressive and have promised a more gentle approach when Thai troops are deployed next month.

The rift demonstrates an underlying uneasiness in many Asian capitals with the peace mission.

Asia has faced up to the crisis in East Timor only with the deepest reluctance.

For years the regional grouping, Asean, turned a blind eye to the savage repression meted out by Jakarta in the territory, citing the principle of non-interference in the affairs of a fellow member state.

It was only after President BJ Habibie reluctantly accepted the deployment of an international peacekeeping force that Asian countries overcame their reticence and agreed to participate.

Who wants to go?

[ image: The Thai army wants to tread gently]
The Thai army wants to tread gently
Yet their commitment to the task, especially if serious conflict were to erupt, is open to doubt.

Some, like Singapore and the Philippines, deliberately avoided committing combat troops, sending logistical and medical support instead.

Thailand was awarded the deputy command of Interfet precisely to ease regional misgivings but it appears just as keen to avoid causing offence to Jakarta.

A softer approach

On Friday, a Defence Ministry official in Bangkok said he was horrified by television pictures showing Australian troops pointing guns at the heads of suspected pro-Jakarta militiamen.

[ image: East Timorese refugees cheered the Australian peacekeepers]
East Timorese refugees cheered the Australian peacekeepers
The unnamed official promised that Thai soldiers would take a more gentle approach.

Interfet's Australian commander, Gen Peter Cosgrove, has played down suggestions of a rif,t but Asian sensitivities have been exposed again by the hostile response to Prime Minister John Howard's claim last week that Australia - flushed with its pivotal role in East Timor - now sees itself as the United States' peacekeeping deputy in Asia.

Malaysia's deputy prime minister retorted that Asian countries knew how to take care of their region better than any outsiders. Thailand described Mr Howard's plan as inappropriate.

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