2. Officer suspended over Timor-Leste remarks

Timor-Leste's new prime minister, Taur Matan Ruak, has been described as a "puppet" in an email sent by an NZDF officer. Photo: Getty Images.

A New Zealand military officer has been suspended after calling the new Timor-Leste prime minister the “puppet” of a revolutionary hero and warning a military coup is possible. Sam Sachdeva reports with this exclusive.

The NZ Defence Force has apologised to its Timor-Leste counterpart for the remarks, accidentally sent to a popular mailing list, with the Government saying the comments do not represent its view.

Former Timor-Leste president Taur Matan Ruak was announced as the country’s prime minister in mid-June, after an opposition coalition led by revolutionary hero Xanana Gusmao won a majority of seats in a May election.

Gusmao was imprisoned for resistance activities during Indonesia’s occupation of Timor-Leste, and became the country’s first president after it won independence in 2002.

NZDF wing commander Kerry McKee sent an email to the East Timor Action Network mailing list, responding to an article about Timor-Leste President Francisco Guterres’ decision to prevent a number of Government politicians from taking office.

In the June 28 email, McKee said Gusmao was the real “kingpin” in the Timor-Leste Government and would be the one “call[ing] the shots”.

“[Ruak] is merely a puppet who has been appointed PM as part of [Gusmao]’s politicking within the coalition.”

“Is there potential for the foundation of a coup de'tat [sic] should Govt not perform.......a long shot but not beyond the realm of possibility noting CDF's continued commentary on politics!!!!!”

McKee said policy differences between the pair were “sure to cause friction”, also outlining perceived divisions between the new Government and the chief of the Timor-Leste Defence Force, Major General Lere Anan Timur.

“We know [Ruak] and CDF...do not see eye to eye.”

Timur and defence-minister designate Filomeno Paixao also had differences of opinion, he said.

Paixao was deputy commander of the defence force, but McKee said he would not have been an acceptable chief due to “baggage he brings from independence fighting days; he comes from the west Timor-Leste and he surrendered to the Indonesians”.

McKee said it would be “interesting to watch” how events played out, suggesting it was possible the military could stage a coup if the Timor-Leste Government failed to deliver.

“Is there potential for the foundation of a coup de'tat [sic] should Govt not perform.......a long shot but not beyond the realm of possibility noting CDF's continued commentary on politics!!!!!”

McKee’s email signature says he is a strategic advisor to the Chief of the Joint Staff of the Armed Forces for the Timor-Leste Defence Force.

The NZDF provides a number of technical advisors on secondment across the South Pacific as part of its Mutual Assistance Programme.

“It is interference in internal matters of another country. Our government, the foreign minister and defence minister should be concerned."

A former Timor-Leste resident, who found McKee’s comments online, said they were “totally out of line for any high-ranking NZDF member who is advising the military of another country”.

“It is interference in internal matters of another country. Our government, the foreign minister and defence minister should be concerned,” they said.

The remarks were particularly serious given the country’s history of invasion, occupation and “horrendous violence”.

“The last thing a military advisor should be doing is spouting his political views publicly. They could too easily create disquiet among soldiers, and let’s remember this is a country with thousands of disaffected unemployed youth just looking for something to do.”

Defence Minister Ron Mark told Newsroom the comments did not represent the views of the NZDF or the Government.

“I understand this is his personal view which he accidentally published on the [mailing list].”

McKee had been stood down from duty while a review of the situation took place, he said.

Mark said NZDF chief Air Marshal Kevin Short had also offered an apology to the Timor-Leste Defence Force for any offence caused.