To friends in East Timor and elsewhere, I submit this follow-up on the issue of the dispatch of Japanese troops to the peacekeeping mission in East Timor.
Jean Inglis, member
of the Japanese solidarity network
UN and Tokyo agree on dispatch of Japanese troops to East Timor
The Japanese government announced on October 22 that a 600-member Self-Defense Force engineering battalion would be sent to East Timor next spring. UN Undersecretary General Jean-Marie Guehenno was in Tokyo at the time to discuss the dispatch with defense chief Nakatani Gen.
Two years ago, after several hundred thousand East Timorese were driven by militia into Indonesian West Timor, a small Self-Defense Force contingent airlifted humanitarian supplies from Surabaya to Kupang for distribution by international aid agencies to the refugees. The operation was too inconspicuous to win the troops any kudos, either at home or abroad. This time, however, the Koizumi government hopes that the dispatch of a whole battalion for operations in East Timor itself will project a positive image of Japan’s army at work overseas, not only to the international community, but also to a Japanese public skeptical of its government’s motives.
When Tokyo first announced in June that it was considering dispatching the SDF to East Timor, several Japanese organizations, including NGOs providing humanitarian aid in East Timor, stated their opposition to the dispatch, calling on the Government to confine itself to non-military assistance. In terms of the SDF’s effectiveness should it be called on to defend East Timorese from attack, they noted the futility of expecting Japan to permit its troops to actually engage Indonesian or Indonesian-backed militia, in the light of the fact that Tokyo refuses to admit that Jakarta is, or has ever been, a party to the conflict in East Timor. The organizations also accused their government of using the PKF issue for its own narrow political interests, namely, to garner public support for changing the pacifist Constitution.
Article 9 of the Constitution prohibits Japan from maintaining land, sea, or air forces. But during a half-century of virtual one-party (Liberal Democratic Party) rule, the Government built the Self-Defense Forces into one of the biggest armed forces in the world, arguing that the SDF did not breach the Constitution because it was only for national defense.
Over the past decade, however, what had long been considered the litmus test of the Government’s claims for the legality of the SDF, restriction on overseas dispatch of troops, has crumbled under timely pressure from the “international community”. While U.S. pressure to send troops to its wars in the Persian Gulf and now in Afghanistan has produced the quickest results -- witness the ease with which the Government this week enacted an anti-terrorism law that allows the SDF to take part, albeit in a rear echelon role, in an on-going war, the steady pressure from other governments and from United Nations officials to send SDF troops overseas to serve in United Nations peacekeeping missions, if less dramatic, is no less welcome by Tokyo. In the long term, the image of Japanese troops as humanitarian workers makes more effective PR for domestic consumption than that of the SDF as war-destined soldiers.
After Japan’s trial balloon announcement in June about a possible mission in East Timor, Australia promptly responded. Prime Minister John Howard stated his "irritation" that the limitations of Japan's war-renouncing Constitution "and the mind set that flows from it" are inhibiting the nation's ability to contribute effectively to international peacekeeping operations.
These were welcome words to the Koizumi Government, anxious to convince the public that the pacifist Constitution isolates Japan from the rest of the world. Also quick to respond was United Nations Undersecretary Louise Fretchett, who similarly urged an SDF dispatch to East Timor and echoed PM Howard’s criticism of the Japanese public for its reluctance to abandon constitutional restraints on the SDF.
In East Timor, the territory’s two most well-known political leaders, Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos-Horta, both un-equivocally welcomed the proposed dispatch of Japanese troops. The head of the United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor, Sergio de Mello, is also known to want to see Japanese troops in the territory.
In August, however, twelve Timorese NGOs, organizations (involved in such fields as human rights, women’s issues, student mobilization, international aid monitoring, etc.) issued a statement opposing the SDF dispatch and urging Japan to instead use its political and economic influence with Indonesia to bring about the normalization of conditions along the border with Indonesian West Timor. This outspoken stance earned the NGO’s the ire of Foreign Minister Ramos-Horta. The Nobel laureate blasted the NGOs in the local Suara Lorosae newspaper, saying that NGOs should mind their own business and leave foreign affairs up to government officials. Like it or not, the East Timorese have been forced to take sides on this Japanese political issue.
The Japanese troops are likely to be stationed where there will be little or no chance of their having to confront armed militia, and they may well perform their road building or well-digging duties to the satisfaction of their Timorese hosts. The dilemma for us in Japan, however, remains unchanged. In the absence of a credible political vision to establish a national non-military corps to serve overseas in times of need, on the one hand, and a strong commitment to even-handed and vigorous diplomacy to mitigate, if not forestall, international disputes, on the other, the government will continue to manipulate international crises to promote its goal of turning the Self-Defense Force into a “normal” army that can go to war anywhere at any time. The United Nations and other big powers may welcome this outcome, but I suspect that most of the world’s people, if given a choice, would opt for a twenty-first century with one less, rather than one more, military armed to the teeth and waiting for war.
BD: Japanese Self-Defense Force - A collection of recent statements and news on plans to send Japan's SDF to join PKF in ETimor