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Cohen Pledges U.S. Assistance to Thai East Timor Forces

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

BANGKOK, Thailand, Oct. 1, 1999 – Defense Secretary William Cohen told Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai the United States will help transport up to 1,300 Thai military forces slated to participate in the International Forces East Timor peacekeeping operation.

Chuan requested the DoD help, which Cohen said he hopes will begin within a week. "The sooner Thai troops can arrive in East Timor, the better off all will be," he said. The secretary said ending violence and helping East Timor establish their new independence from Indonesia is important to the entire region's security and stability. He didn't put a dollar figure on the pledged support but said it will be substantial.

Cohen visited here Oct. 1 as part of a nine-day visit to Australia and Southeast Asia, a visit that will be cut short one day, he told reporters traveling with him. Although he's returning to Washington early for a strategy meeting on modifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on nuclear weapons, the secretary will complete his agenda of visiting also with leaders in Singapore and the Philippines. His earlier stops included Australia and Indonesia.

In Bangkok, he sought to reassure Chuan of the United States' continued friendship with Thailand, a long-time U.S. ally. He also thanked Chuan for Thailand's involvement in the East Timor operation. Thailand's military contingent will be the second largest, behind that of Australia, and a Thai general is serving as the deputy commander for INTERFET. The United States is playing a supportive role, with less than 400 personnel providing key intelligence, communications and command and control functions.

Cohen said the United States and Thailand will continue and expand joint military training. The two nations currently conduct more than 20 training exercises a year including the largest multinational exercise, Cobra Gold, that annually involves 22,000 U.S. and Thai troops. Cohen said future exercises will have peacekeeping scenarios.

The secretary repeated the theme of the United States' friendship with Southeast Asia in good and bad times that he spoke on his last trip here in 1998. He also defended the regional U.S. military presence as necessary to security and stability and beneficial to every country in the Asia-Pacific region, including China. He said the stability provided by the roughly 100,000 U.S. troops based in the region allows countries to grow and prosper without the threat of conflict.

"If we weren't here," Cohen said, "it would create a void that somebody in the region would race to fill."

One place the secretary hasn't yet made inroads to is Vietnam, whose concern about China's role in the region has made it nervous about endorsing the U.S. military presence. Cohen said, however, that he hopes to visit Vietnam within the next year.

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