Australia’s 1999 mission to East Timor part 1: the decision to intervene
2 Oct 2015|

NTERFET troops take up positions on the Suai shoreline.

Sixteen years ago, Australia was on the brink of a major confrontation with Indonesia. A United Nations peacekeeping mission to the Indonesian province of East Timor, which was pushing for independence, had the potential to put Canberra and Jakarta on a collision course. Those tense moments turned into the birth of a new nation.

It’s an extraordinary story that resonates today. A new book, East Timor Intervention, explores the crisis through the eyes of key participants involved in the lead-up and conduct of the intervention.

How Australia stumbled into that predicament and how it responded offers some reminders about the uncertainty of our region, and the importance of military capabilities balanced with effective regional engagement.

In the lead up to the intervention, key defence policy advisers in Canberra, like Hugh White, struggled to reconcile the policy contortions involved in trying to maintain stable and amicable relations with Indonesia in the face of ominous signs leading up to the independence ballot in East Timor in late August 1999 and its aftermath, when pro-Indonesian militias went on the rampage.

In early September, as the security situation threatened to spiral out of control Australia was given a mandate by the United Nations Security Council, and a begrudging invitation from Indonesia to organise and lead a multinational peacekeeping mission to East Timor. The violence which wracked the territory was sparked by militias opposed to East Timor’s overwhelming yes vote for independence, leading to key Timorese political leader, Xanana Gusmao, calling for a UN peacekeeping force.

That force, known as the International Force East Timor (INTERFET), involved some 20 countries, and included more than 5,000 Australians.

The deployment could have gone horribly wrong and, 16 years later, understanding the implications for Australia’s relations with Indonesia and the wider region is critical as we seek to bolster regional security. One trigger pulled, for instance, 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 difficult to extricate or back down.

Prime Minister John Howard maintains 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.’

The real security challenge for INTERFET was always going to be in the first week or so, and the stakes were high. Militia groups harassment of the East Timorese, could have led to combat with INTERFET forces and there was the real risk, by mischance or misjudgment, that the Indonesian military (TNI) might clash with INTERFET troops.

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

The then-Chief of the Australian Defence Force, Admiral Chris Barrie, was instrumental in cobbling together the multi-national coalition. He sent Air Marshal Doug Riding on a tour of the region mustering support for INTERFET.

The early commitment of a deputy force commander from Thailand and battalion sized task forces from Thailand and the Philippines helped ensure the mission’s success. Additionally, the rapid deployment of large numbers of combat troops, initially from Australia, New Zealand and the UK, was an emphatic deterrent to the continued presence of militia groups.

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

East Timor’s President and former Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao, has a different perspective on how the intervention panned out. To him reconciliation, honouring those lost in past conflict and looking optimistically to the future, is a hallmark of his approach. Mandela-like in his forgiveness and generosity, Gusmao’s remarkable effort to stimulate reconciliation is one of the greatest indicators of hope for the young nation of East Timor.

In essence, the 1999 East Timor intervention led to a shift in perceptions of how Australia should see itself and what it could and should do to act decisively in its neighbourhood. For much of the time since those tumultuous days of September 1999, the ADF has been preoccupied by threats in the Middle East. But today security challenges are emerging aplenty in Australia’s neighbourhood: from territorial disputes in the South China Sea that threaten war between great powers to the resurgence of jihadists in our region.

Australia’s experience of mustering and managing the disparate INTERFET coalition and its engagement with regional security partners, serves as an important pointer of where Australian military engagement needs to focus. Indeed, the experiences learnt from that mission are particularly relevant today and are the subject of my next post.