Timor IS tour not all fun in sun

Colonel James Thomson says he expected "beer and beaches" on his seven-month tour of duty in East Timor.

Colonel James Thomson (pictured) says he expected “beer and beaches” on his seven-month tour of duty in East Timor.

Things had begun to calm down in the months before the New Zealand Defence Force officer arrived — just after Christmas 2002. The country had become fully independent in May 2002 and had elected a new president. The armed groups widely believed to be supported by the TNI, the Indonesian military, had been somewhat subdued. But in early January five people were killed in a remote rural area.

The role of Thomson, who has been in the army 28 years, was to help shut down the trouble by integrating the information gathering and management processes of the East Timor Civil Police, military operations/intelligence and the United Nations. What the UN has found since going into the world’s hot spots — nothing to do with Wi-Fi — is that military intervention needs military intelligence, he says.

Thomson’s title was head of policy for communication information systems, which meant he was ostensibly responsible for radio links (in a country whose terrain is “a bit like Coromandel”) and computers. Since the 1970s, when Thomson started in signals, it seemed precious little had changed in terms of radio links — 12-channel UHF gear was still the rage, he jokes. But computers had, of course, made quantum leaps in that time. So Thomson went back to school, taking IT papers at Victoria University.

Thomson relayed his rather doubtful claim of expecting a leisurely tour to a group of IT executives at a CIO magazine lunch in Auckland last week. What Thomson got instead sounded like a fair whack of hard work, the need for some clever diplomacy and a dose or two of head-cracking.

Likening the Timor situation to that of the US after 9/11, Thomson — whose boss is NZDF CIO Ron Hooton — says the biggest problem was information silos. The peace-keeping force (PKF) had a dedicated intelligence unit, as did the local police. Using the military model, a joint information centre was created. Police and PKF began to swap intelligence.

The police were better integrated with the locals, so quickly they become the key source of information on problems. Improving “knowledge transfer”, openness and trust among 15 different national cultures with varying religious affiliations, security clearances and levels of paranoia meant this was no easy task.

Thomson’s office had access to some semblance of IT normality: SAP applications, MS Office, phones linked straight into NZDF HQ in Wellington. Thomson tells the story of one staffer’s repeated attempts to dial “1” to get an “outside” line being quickly answered by New Zealand emergency services.

Weaved in amongst the amusing anecdotes confirming the difficulties and oddities of the task was a bracingly sombre account of information management. Twenty-one people, mostly locals, died while Thomson was there. These included six Russians trying to land a transporter plane on a strip consisting not much more than an old coral reef. A total of 200,000 died in the troubles, out of a population of 800,000. Much Timorese infrastructure was destroyed, says Thomson, by departing wealthy owners who simply didn’t want others to have their property.

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