Staff writer

After nearly three months of pondering what it can do to help resolve the East Timor situation, Japan finally got off its backside and is sending manpower to the region.

The main contingent of a 150-member Air Self-Defense Force team will leave the Komaki Air Base in Aichi Prefecture today to provide sleeping mats, cooking kits and other necessities for East Timorese refugees in neighboring West Timor.

In the operation backed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, three ASDF C-130s will make daily shuttle flights between Surabaya, where the UNHCR has its provisions depots, and Kupang in West Timor for three months, ASDF officials said.

“There have been calls from local (East Timorese) people that they would prefer an Asian nation that is racially similar to take the initiative (in the refugee aid efforts), instead of Australian troops,” a top Defense Agency official said.

“This ASDF dispatch (to West Timor) came about as a result of the government having racked its brains to find a way to contribute manpower within Japan’s current legal framework,” said the official, who asked not to be named.

When the decision was made to dispatch peacekeepers to East Timor to halt the bloodshed by militias opposed to independence, many lawmakers suggested Japan join the operation.

But the government was prompted to not involve Self Defense-Forces in the mission due to strict legal constraints attached to its participation in U.N.-led operations. It instead chose to send the humanitarian aid team to help the refugees trapped in West Timor.

Even in the refugee-aid mission, however, the ASDF team will be unable to enter East Timor, because a truce has not been reached between the militias and the multinational peacekeeping force. A ceasefire agreement is one of the five preconditions attached to a 1992 law that allows Japan to dispatch either peacekeeping or humanitarian aid missions.

In 1994, Japan dispatched Ground Self-Defense Force and ASDF members to Zaire, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda to help refugees who had fled war-torn Rwanda, but were unable to enter Rwanda because no truce had been reached in the country’s civil war.

The 1994 mission prompted a big argument within the government over whether to allow the 370-member SDF team to carry two 7.62 mm machineguns, as requested by the Defense Agency.

The government eventually allowed the SDF team to carry just one — in line with one of the five conditions in the dispatch of its troops for U.N.-led operations that the use of weapons be minimized as much as possible.

Then-Defense Agency Director General Tokuichiro Tamazawa felt compelled to ask Zairian authorities to ensure the SDF contingent’s safety.

In the West Timor dispatch, the ASDF team is only taking two handguns.

Now some lawmakers want the strict conditions governing Japan’s participation in international peacekeeping activities reviewed, terming them unrealistic.

Former Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata, secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan, said there should be exceptions to the truce requirement in such situations as East Timor, where the warring factions are indistinguishable.

“Who and who can agree on a ceasefire in East Timor? The (ceasefire) condition does not apply in this case,” Hata said after a recent visit there.

“(The capital) Dili is devastated, and people there are those most in need. But the current conditions do not allow the Japanese team to carry supplies to Dili,” he said.

Other conditions on Japan’s participation in international peacekeeping activities include receiving consent from host countries as well as the warring parties, maintaining impartiality and immediately withdrawing all SDF units if any of the conditions are breached.

But debate over relaxing these conditions will probably go nowhere — at least for now.

Within the Liberal Democratic Party-led ruling coalition, New Komeito strongly opposes to such a move, while the conservative Liberal Party says Japan should take on a more active peacekeeping role. Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi will probably avoid sources of friction that might further divide the already shaky alliance.

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