On June 28, New Zealand Defense Force (NZDF) Wing Commander Kerry McKee mistakenly sent an email to a public email list in which he stated there was “potential for the foundation of a coup” in Timor-Leste if the government “did not perform.” McKee’s remarks, while sent out accidentally, highlight the need for foreign officials to take great care when commenting on the domestic politics of host countries. Because McKee was a strategic advisor to Lere Anan Timur, Chief of Staff of the F-FDTL, his words had the potential to spread needless panic among the public. Fundasaun Mahein (FM) urges all officials, whether involved in diplomacy, government, civil society, or business, to fact-check their statements rigorously in order to avoid raising false alarms that undermine trust in institutions.
While they were potentially startling, McKee’s remarks do not reflect reality. This week, Major-General Lere reassured the public that he has never even considered the idea of conducting a coup. Moreover, members of the military would be unlikely to consent to a coup given that their former boss, ex-F-FDTL Commander Taur Matan Ruak, is currently Prime Minister. Finally, public opinion remains strongly against the idea of military involvement in politics, and Timorese officials are no doubt aware of this.
For its part, New Zealand has responded quickly and appropriately to the incident. The New Zealand Embassy in Timor-Leste apologized for McKee’s remarks, calling them a “terrible mistake,” and the Defence Minister Ron Mark said that the comments do not represent the views of the Government of New Zealand or the NZDF. Air Marshal Kevin Short, head of the NZDF, apologized directly to the F-FDTL. McKee has been suspended from his role and recalled back to New Zealand pending a review of the incident. Timor-Leste and New Zealand have had historically good relations and it is important that both countries recall their amicable past and put this incident behind them.