Home' Defence Magazine : Issue 9 2009 Contents 16
defence magazine ›
“Our civil engineer Reservists were assigned to CIMIC-type
projects, and our fire-fighter Reservists developed training
programs for the Timorese bombieros [firemen] and soccoros
[airport emergency staff].
“Meanwhile our geospatial soldiers were working with
the land and planning agencies, helping prepare for the 2010
census by teaching them how to use GPS.
“Sometimes it felt like I was commanding a force of 800
international consultants who just happened to be in uniform,
but it was a way of tapping into the force’s inherent talents.”
Know the culture
Understanding the culture of the country – and especially its
leaders – also contributed to Brigadier Sowry’s success. He said
it was the key to understanding the national objectives of the
Timorese leadership, and how his force fitted into this picture.
East Timor’s continuing ties to Portugal are another factor
that Brigadier Sowry says permeates all walks of life in the country
“Many senior leaders remember the support the
Portuguese gave them during their years of exile. There is
a very strong emotional bond as a result of that support,”
Brigadier Sowry said.
“The fact that they speak Portuguese is also perceived
to give them leverage by association with other Portuguese-
speaking countries – a significant world language group. The
bloc has a shared Portuguese experience and it gives the East
Timorese a footprint in all four corners of the world, from Brazil
to Macau. They feel it places them in a stronger space.
“The language spoken by most East Timorese, Tetum,
was geographically isolated, and mainly geared to the
needs of subsistence farming. For example, there is no
Tetum word for ‘training’.”
Brigadier Sowry says this is all about to change with a bold
new program aimed at the young generation of East Timorese.
“To overcome these limitations, all schools are now closed
while the 9 000 teachers are learning to teach in Portuguese.
From January, when the schools re-open, Portuguese will
cease to be the language of just seven to10 per cent, and start
spreading through the whole population,” Brigadier Sowry said.
“But getting their army to be in a state of training when
most soldiers didn’t even have a word for it was another
challenge,” Brigadier Sowry said.
“By the end of the year the East Timorese army, the
Falantil Forsa de Defensa Timor-Leste (FFDTL), was engaging in
joint exercises with the ISF, the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit
and the USS Bonhomme Richard. That was pretty good.
“Now they are making it happen themselves and their
Army engineers in particular are focused on nation-building,
disaster-relief, and post-conflict reconstruction.”
Some 200 000-300 000 young people have only known
life after independence, but they remain aware of underlying
political tensions. The political system is an emerging active
democracy with the main opposition party, Fretilin, gaining
recognition through a vocal but peaceful press campaign.
The Government remains in a strong position, however,
despite the challenges it faces in running the country and
developing its operating legislation, policies and bureaucracy
simultaneously. In Brigadier Sowry’s words: “They are flying the
jet and building it at the same time”.
“I can think of very few countries where any leaders have
had such a profound influence in shaping the future of their
country. Poland under Lech Walesa was one. Cuba is another.
But President Ramos Horta, Prime Minister Gusmao and
Chief of the Defence Force, Brigadier Taur Matan Ruak have
been committed to their country for decades. Their views are
respected and they are venerated by the people, who reach out
to try and touch them in the street.“
Timor Sea oil revenue remains central to the country’s
well-being. The Government has been getting good advice from
the Norwegians, drawn from their experience in the North Sea.
The East Timorese are managing their petroleum fund well,
and maintaining discipline on expenditure to ensure long-term
sustainability. But oil remains the country’s only heavy industry.
Noting this, Brigadier Sowry sees the gap in big industry
as an opening for the entrepreneurial type.
“Holidaymakers who live in the Ruhr or Detroit already
have enough heavy industry on their own doorstep,” said
Brigadier Sowry. “They are looking for the unspoiled, ‘back-
to-nature’ holiday, especially the younger, more adventurous
“Backpacker-style cheap accommodation is springing up,
and for kids prepared to travel on a mikrolet bus (about the
size of a Hi-ace), the countryside is spectacular – it’s ripe for
showcasing the nation
The ‘Tour de Timor’ international cycle race that was held
in mid-August showcased the country, and was a personal
initiative of President Ramos Horta. Timor already has an
international fishing competition planned for the end of the year
and more adventure-type sporting events are on the way.
Brigadier Sowry feels his own nine-month ‘Tour de Timor’
was an overwhelmingly positive experience.
“People rarely get the opportunity to help progress a whole
country – to help it realise its potential,” Brigadier Sowry said.
“The presence of the UN and the ISF is buying time and is
offering its own expertise to help in the process. As the senior
commander I had the opportunity to take part at the diplomatic
as well as the military level – to help manage the relationship
and in a small way help the Timorese people.”
on diplomacy and
rigadier Bill sowry has just returned
from nine months in command of
the International stabilisation Force
(IsF) in east Timor. as commander
of an international force, the posting
involved high-level diplomacy as
much as soldiering.
It’s just the latest high-profile overseas deployment in an
Army career that began on 17 January 1980.
The grandson of a Gallipoli veteran, Brigadier Sowry
commanded some 800 Australian and New Zealand soldiers,
sailors and airmen and airwomen in East Timor. But he is also
surrounded by soldiers even when he comes home. His elder
brother was an army officer who retired 10 years ago, his
younger brother is currently serving in Afghanistan, and he is
married to a serving officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Kath Sowry.
Their four children, aged 14, 13, eight and seven, haven’t
made up their minds yet.
However, four children is nothing for the average East
Timorese couple and that could become one of the country’s
biggest challenges. Fifty per cent of the country is now under
18 and the average birth rate is 7.6 children per woman. East
Timor is already one of the world’s poorest countries and is
facing a tripling of its population by 2050.
Brigadier Sowry brought a novel approach to the longer-
term issue of unemployed youth in East Timor.
“When I got there the security situation was calm but not
stable,” Brigadier Sowry said.
“The Government had largely resolved the most
pressing problem of resettling the large number of
internally-displaced personnel, but we needed to find
something for the youths to do – a non-traditional
intervention that would bring a strategic outcome.
“We decided to implement the Duke of Edinburgh Awards
technically known as the International Award for Youth
when they are not in a Commonwealth country.
“With President Ramos Horta as patron, we began a pilot
scheme with six independent operators, about 80 adult award
leaders and 450 participating youths.
“It was hardly the same level as Singapore where every
school-student over the age of 14 participates, but the International
Secretariat in Sydney was so impressed at the speed of
introduction of the program it gave the ISF a vote of thanks in front
of the Earl of Wessex at its recent Asia Pacific Forum.
“Because the scheme focuses on community service
and self-development, it provides a more positive outlet for
their energies than the gangs many Timorese youths belong
to and should result in an improved longer-term security
outcome as well.”
Another challenge was Prime Minister Gusmao’s request
that the ISF “make its invisibility more visible”.
“In other words the Prime Minister wanted a less obvious
security presence and a refocussing on more exemplar training of
his own Army-in-development,” Brigadier Sowry said. “We began
with learn by showing, which transitioned into learn by doing.”
The composition of the international force was also a
contributing factor to building good working relationships,
according to Brigadier Sowry.
“I must especially acknowledge the Kiwi factor. They
brought their own Kiaora Kiwi style and they understood small
island cultures – many Kiwi soldiers were Maoris or Islanders.
The locals got on with them like a house on fire.”
Brigadier Sowry said that the high Reserve element
among the Australian soldiers was also a big positive.
“For example we used our police Reservists as liaison
officers with the local police. Our UN liaison officer had
worked in both the youth space and the disaster relief
space,“ Brigadier Sowry said.
– Commander of the International Stabilisation Force in
East Timor from January to October, Brigadier Bill Sowry
sometimes it felt like I was commanding a force of 800
international consultants who just happened to be in uniform, but
it was a way of tapping into the Force’s inherent talents
By Stephen Ridgway
aBOVe LeFT: Brigadier sowry presents members of the
new zealand contingent with the Timor Leste solidarity
Medal. Photo: SIS Paul Berry
LeFT: Brigadier sowry (far left) works together with the
east Timor Defence Force during traininig missions in
urban operations. Photo: LAC Christopher Dickson
Links Archive Issue 8 2009 Issue 1 2010 Navigation Previous Page Next Page