Australian soldiers of the International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) arrive by helicopter 03 October 1999 in Balibo, East Timor. Image by AFP.

Australian soldiers of the International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) arrive by helicopter 03 October 1999 in Balibo, East Timor. Image by AFP.

Reflections on East Timor

16 September 2015

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Professor of International Security & Intelligence Studies

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A new book on Australia’s involvement in East Timor offers a multitude of views on the 1999 intervention.

In September 1999, as East Timor’s move for independence from Indonesia threatened to spiral out of control into a worsening security and humanitarian crisis, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and US President Bill Clinton declared their support for Australia to organise and lead a multinational peacekeeping mission to the troubled island.

The violence that wracked the country was sparked by militias opposed to East Timor's overwhelming vote for independence, leading key Timorese political figure Xanana Gusmao to call for a UN peacekeeping force to intervene.

John Blaxland, an historian based in the Strategic Studies and Defence Centre at ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, was part of that force. Known as the International Force East Timor (INTERFET), it involved some 20 countries, and included more than 5000 Australians.

'The deployment could have gone horribly wrong,' he reflects in a new book, East Timor Intervention: A retrospective on INTERFET

'One trigger pulled by a nervous soldier at a checkpoint in Dili, or one irresponsible act by an individual or group could have easily escalated into a bloody clash from which it would have been very difficult to extricate or back down.'

Dr Blaxland’s book includes a foreword by then-prime minister, John Howard, and personal accounts from key people involved in the deployment.

According to Howard, Australia’s involvement in the 1999 liberation of East Timor still resonates strongly with the Southeast Asian nation. 

'It directly led to the birth of a very small country whose people remain deeply grateful for what we did,' he says.

The real security challenge for INTERFET, Blaxland's book points out, was always going to be in the first week or so and the stakes were high. 

There was a chance that militia groups might either continue to prey on the East Timorese, leading to combat with INTERFET forces, or that, through mischance or misjudgement, the Indonesian military (TNI) and INTERFET troops might clash.

'The Indonesian Martial Law Commander, Lieutenant General Kiki Syahnakri, surprised those most critical of the Indonesian military, by helping masterfully to avoid what could have degenerated into a vicious and ugly fight between neighbours,' Blaxland says.

'He understood the high stakes and the potentially devastating long term consequences of an armed clash leading to a more extensive conflict between Australia and Indonesia.'

Additionally, the fast and powerful deployment of large numbers of combat troops, initially from Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, was an emphatic deterrent to militia groups’ continued presence.

Thereafter, Blaxland claims, INTERFET could undertake a sort of ‘benign occupation’ of East Timor to restore confidence and, crucially, to allow the return and spread of United Nations and non-government organisation services.

Among the multitude of contributors to Blaxland’s book are the then-Chief of the Defence Force, Admiral Chris Barrie, key policy adviser Hugh White, and East Timor's president and former prime minister Xanana Gusmao. All offer different perspectives on how the intervention played out.

White, now based at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, argues that many people and organisations share responsibility for East Timor’s transition to independence, and that Australia’s proportion of that is 'very small.' 

'The largest shares must go to those people in East Timor, who made the territory ungovernable for Jakarta for twenty-five long years; to their leaders, who kept the issue on the international agenda; and to President Habibie, who, at great political risk, took the astonishingly brave decision to offer East Timor a vote on its future, and to abide by the result,' he says.

East Timor Intervention: A retrospective on INTERFET, will be launched by Lieutenant General Angus Campbell at the Great Hall, University House, ANU, on 24 September at 5.30 pm. To register click here.




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