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East Timor/Timor-Leste

The violence that accompanied the plebiscite in East Timor in 1999 was a strategic shock for the Australian Government—and the Australian Army. After the Vietnam War many believed that the Army was not likely to be committed overseas again in a major way—its mission was the ‘defence of Australia’. The repercussions of the so-called ‘peace dividend’ created an Army that was too light, overly dependent on wheeled vehicles and was organisationally hollowed out. In response to the escalating violence and very real humanitarian crisis overwhelming the people of East Timor, the United Nations called on Australia to lead the International Force for East Timor (INTERFET). After years of being on the strategic sidelines, the Australian Army was now immersed in what the then Chief of the Defence Force, Admiral Chris Barrie considered, ‘the most significant military undertaking we have had since World War II’.

Leading the INTERFET coalition was as much about diplomacy for Australian forces as it was about security. Australia’s strong ties with Indonesia required that forces maintain a professional relationship with members of the Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI) even as it curbed the activities of the pro-Jakarta militia and demobilised the guerrilla Timorese forces, the Falantil.

INTERFET also tested the new abilities of the new Headquarters Deployable Joint Task Force and joint operations concept.

In May 2002, East Timor became Timor-Leste, a fully independent country with a parliamentary government. It remains one of the poorest countries in the world, but ten years after independence there is hope that government and legal institutions are stabilising. The country remains fragile and political rivalries extending back into its guerrilla past have required the help of the Australian Army again in 2006 and 2009, but its future is hopeful. Australian soldiers and police officers from the Australian Federal Police continue to work with its fledgling security forces.

Four Australian soldiers have died in over ten years of Australian deployment to Timor-Leste. None of these deaths has been due to enemy actions.

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East Timor was colonised by the Portuguese in the seventeenth century. The Portuguese withdrew from the colony in 1974. In 1975, concerned that the guerrillas who had opposed Portuguese forces would expand their sphere of influence into their territory, Indonesia invaded and absorbed East Timor. Forças da Liberação Nacional de Timor-Leste (Falintil), the guerrilla wing of the Fretilin political movement continued to fight for independence until Indonesian President B J Habibie allowed a plebiscite. Intimidation by pro-Jakarta militia failed to sway voters with 78.5% choosing independence. Violence by militia escalated—homes and infrastructure were destroyed, people were killed in the streets and over 300,000 people were forcibly relocated to West Timor. 

On 14 September 1999 Australia agreed to lead a multi-nation stabilisation force and the next day the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1264 established INTERFET.

The success of INTERFET relied on more than security on the ground; regional consensus was essential. Major commitments from Thailand, Singapore and Philippines were negotiated and Malaysia provided a smaller contribution. Major General Sonkitti Jaggabattra of Thailand was also INTERFET’s deputy commander. In all, twenty-two countries contributed to the mission—Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, Fiji, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Malaysia, New Zealand, Norway, Philippines, Portugal, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, United Kingdom and the United States. Japan offered significant funding.

In 2002, the United Nations Transitional Administration East Timor (UNTAET) succeeded INTERFET. By 2005 the follow-on United Nations Mission of Support in East Timor (UNMISET) was closed with final Australian troops withdrawing from Moleana on 13 June. Australian support in the form of advisors and members of the Defence Cooperation Program–East Timor continued and members of the Australian Federal Police also remained. 

In 2006, simmering tensions in the security forces came to a head. Breakdown of both the Falintil–Forcas Defensa Timor Lorasae (F-FDTL) and the Policia Nacional de Timor-Leste (PNTL) led to violence throughout the streets of Dili. The Timor-Leste Government declared a state of emergency and negotiated the help of an Australian-led International Stabilisation Force, with Operation ASTUTE the Australian component, through the United Nations and the Australian Government. At the end of the crisis approximately 150,000 people were internally displaced and 1650 houses were destroyed.

On 26 May 2006, Australia deployed Combined Joint Task Force 631 to conduct evacuation and stabilisation operations in Dili. The International Stabilisation Force did not operate under a United Nations mandate though. In August 2006 the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1704 created a mandate for the United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT).  

When the Special Air Service Response Force Group and 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment entered East Timor in 1999, there was no government, little remaining infrastructure, the Indonesian TNI were still in the country and pro-Jakarta militia intimidated and harassed locals. Some towns were completely destroyed and their populations had disappeared.

Major General Cosgrove focused Australia’s Operation STABILISE on a four-phase plan: negotiate with the TNI to ensure safe entry; rapidly deploy as many combat forces as possible; secure Dili first and then extend into the countryside; and transition INTERFET to a United Nations peacekeeping mission. Cosgrove used an ‘oil spot’ method to gain the confidence of the East Timorese—rapidly deploying troops to stabilise and permanently secure an area before moving on to the next. By the end of the second day of deployment 3000 troops were on the ground and by the end of first week this had increased to 4300. In mid-November INTERFET peaked at nearly 11,500 personnel; 9300 were ground troops. Australia’s commitment reached 5500.

Three of Australia’s four battalions were deployed to East Timor, placing an enormous strain on resources, logistics and inter-service coordination.

The situation was very different in 2006. By this time East Timor had become independent Timor-Leste, formed government and public service infrastructure (including legal institutions), and created a defence and police force. The building of the nation was proceeding but it remained extremely fragile. Tensions within the F-FDTL sparked a crisis in security, and made the weaknesses in both this and the PNTL extremely evident.

When the 4th Battalion (Commando), Royal Australian Regiment arrived in Dili they faced a very different mission to 1999. Anti-state actors and criminal gangs took advantage of tensions among different interest groups, inciting riots and violence against government and security forces. Stabilisation of the fragile government became the chief task of the operation. A two-pronged approach—combining a strong presence on the streets during the early stabilisation effort with engaging the assistance of religious leaders in reassuring displaced people—gave the government breathing space, allowing it to regroup and re-establish law and order.

The Australian Army learnt a great deal from its stabilisation and peacekeeping missions in Timor-Leste. Maintaining and managing a multi-national coalition composed of contingents with vastly differing capabilities and rules of engagement required a great deal of skill. Gaining the trust of the people was also extremely important. Creating a secure environment was important, but more essential was maintaining and extending this security. Enlisting locals, particularly Catholic priests, helped build confidence in peace and encouraged the spread of the rule of law in both 1999 and in 2006.

Last updated
22 December 2016

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