Timor-Leste: Operation Tower Monitors Stability

16 June 2011 FDI Team

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Key Points

Australian military observers in Timor-Leste report that:

  • Progress has been made in training and integrating Timor-Leste’s security forces.
  • Timor-Leste has achieved a respectable degree of self-sufficiency in maintaining internal security.
  • For the foreseeable future, Australia’s military involvement in Timor-Leste under a UN mandate will remain integral to the stabilisation of Timor-Leste, especially in relation to training, mentoring and capacity building initiatives.


Now in its seventh-year, Operation Tower is the Australian Defence Force (ADF) contribution to the United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT). The mission started in August 2006 in response to the urgent requirement for international intervention and plays an important role in monitoring Timor-Leste’s security environment. Composed of only four ADF personnel, it is one of the ADF’s smallest overseas missions. It has seen a total of 24 officers serve since it first began. As the head of Operation Tower, Wing Commander Nick Burma spoke in early May to FDI’s Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe about: Australia’s role, the importance of the mission, its challenges, the key lessons that have been learnt, and the mission’s future status.


Future Directions International:

Q: Describe Australia’s role and participation in UNMIT through Operation Tower? Why is the mission important?

Wing Commander Nick Burma:Australia maintains a strong commitment to work closely with the government of Timor-Leste and our international partners to support the security and development of Timor-Leste. In part, this is achieved through the ADF contribution to UNMIT which is working to promote stability, national reconciliation and democratic governance.

To achieve this, Australia, through the ADF, has contributed four military officers to Operation Tower. Three officers are allocated to the Military Liaison Group, or MLG, as Military Liaison Officers, or MLOs. One officer is assigned to the Joint Military Analysis Centre, or JMAC, as its Deputy Chief.

The current ADF contingent comprises two Lieutenant Colonels and a Major from the Army who serve as MLOs, and a Wing Commander from the RAAF who is the Deputy Chief of the JMAC. The MLOs can be assigned to any one of five Military Liaison Teams, or MLTs, that are located in Dili, Baucau, Bobonaro, Covalima and Oecussi districts. There are 13 districts in Timor Leste, but this distribution allows MLTs to still visit all parts of the country. The only exception is the Oecussi district which is actually an enclave situated about 60 kilometres outside of Timor-Leste.

An MLT will normally consist of five or six military officers and one or two Timorese nationals who are employed as Language Assistants. It is not typical for ADF members to serve together in one team. They could instead work with officers from Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Fiji, India, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Portugal, Singapore and Sri Lanka.

At the moment, ADF MLOs are in the Oecussi and Covalima MLTs, while another member is the Operations Officer in the MLG headquarters at Obrigado Barracks in Dili. Obrigado Barracks is where the UNMIT executive leadership is located along with other specialist units such as the JMAC.

The primary function of the MLOs is to monitor the security environment across Timor-Leste and provide specialist military advice to UNMIT executives on the state of security. To achieve this, MLOs conduct daily patrols to various sucos, or villages, across the districts for which their teams are responsible. The patrols conduct interviews with government officials, Timorese security forces such as the military, police and border patrol agents, business representatives, community leaders and members of the wider community.

In border areas, the MLOs will also meet with Indonesian military or police who are responsible for border security. MLOs are not experts on all topics such as nutrition, gender affairs, human rights, transitional justice and health, which are all important to people’s sense of security. But, because of their coverage, the MLOs are able to collect information that is used by specialist staff either in UNMIT itself or the specialist UN agencies which form part of the integrated mission. This is in addition to the more traditional notions of physical security.

For its part, the JMAC is a multi-disciplinary cell that analyses available information and provides assessments to the Special Representative of the Secretary-General who heads UNMIT on issues that might impact the achievement of the UNMIT mandate.

Despite its size, Operation Tower is important on a number of fronts. It reflects Australia’s support for the UN and a belief that UN is integral to the credibility and legitimacy of peace and security efforts in Timor-Leste.

The contribution of ADF officers to UNMIT reinforces Australia’s commitment to UN operations in our region and Timor-Leste in particular. Operation Tower is consistent with Australia’s ongoing support for the security and development of Timor-Leste. As improvements take hold, Timor-Leste and Australia will become much more capable in dealing with a range of security issues such as transnational crime, human trafficking and terrorism that are of common concern to each country.

Future Directions International:

Q: Tell us about the challenges and difficulties encountered throughout the mission? What has been achieved since 2006?

 Wing Commander Nick Burma: Operation Tower is not too different to other ADF operations in dealing with different cultures and languages. But for Operation Tower members this is not confined to just the Timorese culture and language but extends, quite literally, to the entire United Nations. Once a person adapts to this environment, the diversity of the people with whom they interact becomes a very educational and rewarding experience.

On a more physical level, the greatest challenge to Operation Tower members is mobility. The MLOs travel extensively by road to meet their patrol and liaison objectives which occurs across a spectacular but very rugged landscape to begin with. The situation is made all the more challenging by roads and bridges that are quite degraded. This is particularly so in the wet season, typically from November to April, when rivers can rise unexpectedly as well as the incidence of landslides. The existence of these hazards is understood by all MLOs and patrol planning features very robust risk assessments to avoid such hazards.

Operation Tower has gone through several phases. It commenced with the security crisis of April–May 2006 which resulted in a meltdown of the Timor-Leste security forces (military and police). Further tension and uncertainty was experienced in the wake of the 2007 elections and culminated in the attempted assassination of President Hose Ramos-Horta and attack on Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão in February 2008.

The focus of Operation Tower members, through the MLG, during this period was a more traditional role of monitoring a very uncertain and fragile security environment. Although deemed necessary and welcome, the security of the Timorese population was again provided by outsiders. Throughout this period, efforts by UNMIT and donor countries, including Australia, have taken on various activities to support the reconstruction of the PNTL, (Timor-Leste National Police), the F-FDTL, or Timor-Leste Defence Force, and, more widely, the security sector of Timor-Leste.

Since 2009, the security environment has stabilised and improved significantly with Timor-Leste increasingly assuming almost complete responsibility for its own security. Various external entities, such as UNMIT, continue to work in the background adopting mentoring and capacity-building roles. As a result, Operation Tower members are able to focus on non-traditional security issues, as discussed earlier, while looking forward to the next stage of
F-FDTL development.

This next stage will see Operation Tower members involved in designing and delivering training packages to prepare F-FDTL officers and senior non-commissioned officers for roles as MLOs themselves.  So, sometime in the future, Timor-Leste will have evolved from being supported by UN peacekeepers and MLOs to contributing its own military personnel to UN missions in other troubled areas. 

Future Directions International:

Q: Tell us about the lessons learnt from Operation Tower? How may they be applicable to the ADF now and in the future? What do you think makes the ADF experience in Operation Tower unique?

Wing Commander Nick Burma:As part of UNMIT, Operation Tower members are taking part in a fairly large and complex mission that integrates functions such as the MLG, the UN Police that are drawn from a wide range of countries, specialist areas of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, such as Security Sector Reform, and other UN agencies such as the World Food Programme.

This integrated mission runs parallel to the activities of individual donor countries such as Australia, which provide other support through bi-lateral arrangements with the Timor-Leste government. It doesn’t matter where the individual Operation Tower members are situated, as they are exposed to most aspects of this extensive mission and, more importantly, play key roles in it.

By moving through the various phases, each contingent has witnessed different stages of Security Sector Reform. The current contingent is expanding into MLO training, as mentioned earlier, but it can look back onto the work done by other Operation Tower contingents to gain a greater appreciation and understanding of the F-FDTL and its environment so that the objectives and expectations of the organisation can be met more effectively.

All of these activities are conducted with representatives of security forces which are not traditional partners that Australia may be used to operating alongside. But each element has arrived in Timor-Leste with its own experiences and perspectives which can enhance and add value to the objectives that the teams are working towards. The ability to harness such diversity makes it easier for the wider ADF to conduct operations in unfamiliar cultural environments or with non-traditional partners.

Collectively, Operation Tower members have seen different approaches to Security Sector Reform and therefore can understand the challenges associated with a wholesale transformation of a country’s security sector. At the same, the positive steps that have been taken in the Timor-Leste security sector provide evidence that such reforms can be achieved in post-conflict societies.

In the case of Operation Tower, this is being achieved in the wider context of a UN-integrated mission that extends beyond traditional peacekeeping and monitoring operations, but which is integrated with the efforts of specialist UN agencies. As such, Operation Tower members are actively involved in security monitoring, reform and capacity building within the much broader construct of an integrated UN mission.

Perhaps sometime in the future, Australia may be asked to contribute ADF personnel to another post-conflict nation to support Security Sector Reform, which may be conducted alongside traditional peacekeeping operations. The lessons learnt by ADF officers, through Operation Tower, on Security Sector Reform and how a wider integrated UN mission operates will increase the value that is already placed upon the ADF officers in other operations and missions.

Each operation involving the ADF is unique. There are a number of factors that make Operation Tower unique. Firstly, it is a small operation comprising only four officers at a time. Although members of an Australian contingent, these officers can be dispersed across Timor-Leste and spend very little time with each other and perhaps even other Australians. But, as discussed earlier, this has its advantages in allowing these officers to gain insights from a diverse range of people with whom they would otherwise have little, if any, professional or social contact.

Secondly, the operation spans twelve months which is probably the minimum length of time for an officer to enter the mission area, gain familiarity with all of its nuances and requirements, learn from others and then have the time to actually apply this knowledge to the situation as it unfolds. 

Finally, the nature of the mission enables Operation Tower personnel to interact professionally with a wider range of international and domestic actors who have an interest in the security and development of Timor-Leste. Along similar lines, the nature of Operation Tower enables its members to become very close to the communities they support and the Timorese society as a whole. This enhances the very close and special relationship and bond that has formed between the peoples of Timor-Leste and Australia over a number of decades. 

Future Directions International:


Q: Given that Operation Tower personnel consult widely with the Timorese population, tell us about the current internal security situation in East Timor?

Wing Commander Nick Burma: The general security environment is stable. The resumption of policing by the PNTL on 27 March 2011 is a positive step for Timor-Leste which coincided with the 10th anniversary of that organisation. On 22 April 2011, an altercation occurred between members of the PNTL and the F-FDTL Military Police. The local media was quick to report this matter, as well as the comments from appropriate official sources that put the incident into proper perspective, to avoid alarm among the public, and announced the steps that will be taken to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.

The land border situation between Timor-Leste and Indonesia is fairly stable. A border incident occurred at Citrana (Oecussi District) in February this year when Indonesian military personnel, Tentara Nasional Indonesia, (TNI), entered the Naktuka Unresolved Area on the Timorese side of the border. This situation did not escalate into anything serious. At the local level, agreements and protocols were established for joint patrols of the unresolved area by TNI and the Timorese Border Patrol Unit, Unido Patruolomento Fronteira, (UPF) agents.

More recently, some Timorese individuals crossed into the Indonesia from the Bobonaro District and stole some livestock. The security forces on both sides of the border operated together to prevent any escalation of the incident between the villagers concerned and then located and returned the animals to their owners. There is some smuggling across the land border as well as cases of illegal border crossings. In some cases, illegal activities are involved. However, in others, the crossings are the result of cross-border trade which predates the separation of Timor-Leste from Indonesia. Similarly, the crossings may involve family contacts.

On the maritime border front, the F-FDTL Maritime Component makes periodic announcements of its capabilities and aspirations to protect Timor-Leste’s maritime resources. There are occasional reports through the local media of goods being smuggled from Indonesia into Timor-Leste by small boats. But the descriptions of the events suggest small-scale efforts by individuals rather than anything more serious.

Future Directions International:

Q: What is the future status of Operation Tower given talk of withdrawing Australia’s peacekeeping contingent from East Timor?

 Wing Commander Nick Burma: There has been fairly wide reporting through various media outlets that UNMIT will withdraw from Timor-Leste at the end of 2012. For its part, Operation Tower is the ADF contribution to UNMIT which is delivered through the deployment of four officers to the MLG and JMAC.

As part of an integrated mission, the future of Operation Tower is dependent upon that of UNMIT, as well as any direction that may be given by authorities in Australia. Any planning for the transition and withdrawal of UNMIT rests with other areas of the mission. For the moment, any prediction regarding the future status of Operation Tower cannot be speculated upon as it is a matter for other authorities in the UN and Australia. 


Biography:  Wing Commander Nick Burma currently heads the ADF commitment to Operation Tower in Timor-Leste. He joined the RAAF in 1986 and has specialised as a Security Officer. Throughout his career, Wing Commander Burma has held a variety of security, counterintelligence, Information Operations and Force Protection appointments in the RAAF. He has deployed as a security and Force Protection specialist on ADF and coalition operations in Bougainville, Central Asia and the Middle East. Prior to his current appointment on Operation Tower, Wing Commander was the Deputy Director–Force Protection at Headquarters Air Command, RAAF Base Glenbrook.




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