Early yesterday, the Defence Minister Datuk Abang Abu Bakar Mustapa announced during an Armed Forces Day television interview that Malaysia will not participate in the Australian-led multinational force to restore peace in East Timor, although Malaysia would be involved in the second-phase peace-keeping mission under the auspices of the United Nations.
It is a relief that the Malaysian government had reversed its decision not to join the multi-national force as this will be tantamount to Malaysia abdicating from its international responsibilities and commitments, denuding Malaysia of the right to take the high moral ground in international relations.
Earlier, the Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar had expressed the same sentiments as those of the Defence Minister when he said it was not a "good development" for Australia to head the peacekeeping force in East Timor as Asean countries should be given preference to play a role in resolving the dispute and conflict in East Timor in view of the fact that Indonesia was a member of the regional body.
After the government reversed its decision not to join the East Timor Multinational Force headed by Australia, Abu Bakar said later yesterday that the First Phase Multinational Force would be in East Timor for six weeks, to be followed by the Second Phase UN Peacekeeping Force.
He hoped that the Second Phase would comprise Asean countries under the auspices of the UN and that the UN commander would be an officer from an Asean country as East Timor is in the Asean region.
Today, Abu Bakar said Malaysia is sending a 39-men complement comprising 16 officers and 13 other ranks to East Timor and that a Malaysian army general has been appointed the Deputy Commander of the 8,000-strong United Nations multinational force to restore law and order after rampaging pro-Jakarta militias killed thousands following the East Timorese vote for independence from Indonesia last month.
He added that Malaysia would be taking part "in a big way" in the UN peacekeeping force six weeks after the deployment of the force in East Timor.
Abu Bakar’s announcement that a Malaysian has been appointed Deputy Commander of the multinational force to East Timor was immediately challenged by the Thai government which had announced yesterday that Thailand will take the post of deputy commander of the operation below Australia's overall command.
A Thai government spokesman said that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan "wanted to see Thai cooperation and involvement as the leader of the ASEAN countries" and that "The Australians have proposed that the Thai contingent will take sole deputy command with a duty to see liaison between ASEAN and Australian forces".
A 33-men Thai detachment left Thailand to join the international force this morning, and Thailand will send 1,500 soldiers including combat troops and sniffer dogs as well as other specialists by before the end of October.
From press accounts, Australia will be contributing an estimated 4,500
troops to the multi-national force, while the Philippines is sending
a 120-member military contingent to join the first wave of international
peacekeepers which will enter East Timor on Sunday to be followed by about
120 others shortly after. The Filipino military high command has said that
the Filipino troops are expected to stay in East Timor for between three
to six months before the UN blue beret
group will have assembled.
The Malaysian government seems to be interested to stake a claim to want to replace Australia as head of the UN peacekeeping force in the second phase of the peacekeeping operation, which it estimates would be in six weeks’ time, and if so, the it must be prepared to send the most number of troops to join the East Timor Multi-National Force compared to other national contingents.