When East Timor experienced a humanitarian and security crisis in 1999, Australia led a multinational peacekeeping force in response. The International Force East Timor (INTERFET) and several United Nations (UN)-led missions assisted the country as it achieved independence, and established itself as an independent and democratic country. Australia's deployment of troops to East Timor in 1999 was the largest since the Vietnam War.
Australia's involvement in East Timor, from 1999 to the end of 2012 was instrumental in that nation gaining independence. The International Force East Timor (INTERFET), deployed from 1999 to 2000, remains Australia's largest peacekeeping mission to date, and the largest overseas military deployment since the Vietnam War. Furthermore, it was the first time Australia had led a major international coalition.
['Official Histories - Iraq, Afghanistan & East Timor', Australian War Memorial]
Independence and unrest in East Timor
East Timor (now Timor-Leste), is situated on the island of Timor, approximately 700 km north-west of Darwin. It was declared a Portuguese colony in 1702. East Timor remained under Portuguese rule until 28 November 1975, when a political party called the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETLIN) declared the country's independence.
Nine days after the declaration of independence, Indonesia started to incorporate East Timor. This began decades of violence and conflict between separatist groups and the Indonesian military.
On 12 November 1991, Indonesian troops opened fire on hundreds of unarmed, pro-independence protestors at the Santa Cruz cemetery in the capital, Dili. They killed up to 200 East Timorese civilians.
After the massacre, international activists organised in solidarity with the East Timorese. The international community increased its scrutiny of the Indonesian government. Over the next few years, the independence movement gained momentum.
United Nations Assistance Mission to East Timor (UNAMET)
The UN established UNAMET on 11 June 1999. The mission's role was to organise and conduct a ballot for a public referendum on whether East Timor should have autonomy under Indonesia, or independence.
The Australian operation was codenamed Operation Faber. The operation included 45 military personnel. They conducted military liaison with the Indonesian Armed Forces.
The Australian Federal Police deployed 50 personnel to serve with UNAMET from June 1999. The roles of civilian police in UNAMET were to:
- advise the Indonesian police in the course of their duties
- escort ballot boxes after the vote.
We didn't know how many would actually turn up for the actual polling… As I was driving, the head lights of the Land Rover went across the top, there was over two thousand people all sleeping in the basketball court and the wrecked buildings of the school… They didn't know … who we were until they saw the UN on the side of the vehicle and they just drowned us out with cheers. It was the most moving sight I could ever imagine… These people… had come there during the night because they knew that on polling day if they left their village, and some of them had 12 kilometres to walk over mountain foot pads, they knew the militia would get them on the way there. So to be safe that they actually were there to vote, in the safety of numbers, they all piled onto the place during the night and slept there overnight in freezing conditions.
[East Timor veteran Donald Barnby, interviewed for the Australians at War Film Archive]
The ballot was conducted on 30 August 1999. With 78.5% of East Timorese people voting against autonomy under Indonesia, this paved the way for the country to move towards independence.
The UN withdrew the first UNAMET mission in mid-September 1999.
The significance of the AFP [Australian Federal Police] contribution to UNAMET was universally applauded. Ultimately, the AFP members of UNAMET were awarded the Australian Group Bravery Citation. The then Justice Minister, Amanda Vanstone, officially highlighted the pivotal role played by the AFP as among the first people deployed into Timor-Leste.
"It was in fact, only the unarmed civilian police, mostly Australian, and led by an Australian, who refused to give up when others were ready to leave East Timor. They stood between armed militia and the defenceless people of East Timor. Without that group and their willingness, or determination, to hold on in a desperate and dangerous situation, the United Nations may have in fact withdrawn," Ms Vanstone said.
[AFP Platypus Magazine, April 2013, p. 8]
The East Timorese crisis of 1999
In response to the vote for independence, pro-Indonesia militia groups began attacking civilians. They centred the violence on Dili, but it spread throughout the country. About 1,400 civilians died, and around 500,000 people were displaced from their homes. Entire towns were destroyed. About half of the population left the territory, some by force.
The scale and ferocity of the violence shocked the world. Widespread public anger put pressure on the governments of Australia, Portugal, the US and others to help with the crisis. On 12 September 1999, US President Bill Clinton announced:
The Indonesian military has aided and abetted militia violence in East Timor, in violation of the commitment of its leaders to the international community. This has allowed the militias to murder innocent people, to send thousands fleeing for their lives, to attack the United Nations compound. The United States has suspended all military cooperation, assistance, and sales to Indonesia... The Indonesian Government and military must not only stop what they are doing but reverse course. They must halt the violence not just in Dili but throughout the nation. They must permit humanitarian assistance and let the U.N. mission do its job... We are ready to support an effort led by Australia to mobilize a multinational force to help to bring security to East Timor under U.N. auspice... the eyes of the world are on that tiny place and on those poor innocent, suffering people.
[William Clinton, Remarks to American and Asian Business Leaders in Auckland]
Indonesian President BJ Habibie announced on 12 September 1999 that the country would withdraw from East Timor and allow peacekeepers to enter. Even as the troops withdrew, they murdered dozens of unarmed civilians.
The International Force East Timor (INTERFET)
The port [in East Timor] was like a scene from Hades. There were piles of what appeared to be burning rags and belongings, there was human excrement on the ground, families crying, people clearly disturbed and frightened.
[Lieutenant Colonel Tim McOwan, Australian Special Air Service Regiment, Australian War Memorial]
On 15 September 1999, the UN Security Council authorised the formation of a multinational force known as INTERFET. It was headed by Australia, with a mission to:
- restore peace and security in East Timor
- protect and support UNAMET in carrying out its tasks
- facilitate humanitarian assistance operations.
INTERFET began landing in East Timor on 20 September 1999 with the agreement of the Indonesian Government. By November 1999, 22 nations had contributed to INTERFET, including the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada.
The Australian operations were known as Operation Stabilise and Operation Warden. The Australian Government sent about 5,500 service people to East Timor as part of its contribution to INTERFET. This was the largest deployment of Australian troops since the Vietnam War. Major General Sir Peter Cosgrove commanded the multinational force for 5 months until February 2000.
Australians from the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR), New Zealanders from the New Zealand Special Air Service (NZSAS) and a troop from the British Special Boat Service (SBS) formed Response Force (RESPFOR). They conducted vehicle patrols into Dili and secured the port before the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR) and other forces arrived.
About 10 AFP members who had been with the first UNAMET mission returned to East Timor with INTERFET under the UNAMET banner. They carried out monitoring and advisory duties. They would later transition to the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), the transition mission, when it was established in October 1999.
Securing East Timor
Australians in East Timor were confronted by distressing scenes of violence, murder and destruction. Cosgrove used an 'oil spot' approach. This meant forces would secure key areas and influence surrounding areas from there, then move on quickly by helicopter. They secured Dili by the end of September 1999. From there, they moved to secure the western areas, including Balibo, Batugade and Maliana.
The SAS patrols went a bit further out... we followed them out and we were doing a bunch of joint patrolling with them. And then it started to happen that people started to return. And they'd all been hiding... in the hills... Over the afternoon, we went from nobody to thousands and thousands of people.
And I remember we came off of patrol and they were all congregating at the church and we went down and there was so much emotion from them and they were so thankful... I remember just having my hand shook for hours as we were there and just an amazing experience. And then we started unloading food and so forth.
[INTERFET veteran Lieutenant Colonel David McCammon, Anzac Portal]
At the beginning of its operations, INTERFET airdropped supplies of food and medicine. They protected convoys carrying aid workers, making sure supplies got to the East Timorese people.
The mission secured East Timor, and placed a defensive line on the western border with Indonesia. Australian and New Zealand infantry strengthened this area. The mission cemented Darwin as a vital logistical and defensive base. It also tested the capability limits of the Australian Defence Force (ADF).
United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) from 2000 to 2002
The UN established UNTAET on 25 October 1999. UNTAET directly administered East Timor, including:
- providing a peacekeeping force to maintain law and order
- coordinating relief assistance to the East Timorese
- providing emergency repairs to infrastructure
- creating structures for sustainable governance and law
- assisting in the drafting of a new constitution
- conducting elections.
The Australians became involved from February 2000, in what was known as Operation Tanager. It comprised 7,500 ADF personnel. Australia contributed an Infantry Battalion Group force to the western border region (Sector West) of East Timor. Their role was to prevent insurgency operations by the pro-Indonesia Aitarak Militia forces.
Australia also contributed a Communications Management Team. It provided services in:
- communications infrastructure
- installations and management.
Logistical units were provided under the command of the Australian National Command Element.
The Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste achieved formal independence on 20 May 2002.
United Nations Mission of Support in East Timor (UNMISET) from 2002 to 2005
When Timor-Leste became internationally recognised as an independent state, the UN established UNMISET.
The mission provided assistance to the new government. This included law enforcement, and internal and external security. It helped develop the new Timor-Leste police service.
The Australian operation was codenamed Operation Citadel. It comprised 3,200 ADF personnel. Their functions included:
- staffing headquarters
- managing logistics
- military liaison tasks.
An Australian Army colonel also filled the deputy force commander position within the UN Peacekeeping Force Headquarters (PFK HQ).
United Nations Office in Timor-Leste (UNOTIL) from 2005 to 2006
The UN established UNOTIL to continue to support the development of critical state institutions. Sixteen ADF personnel were involved in Operation Chiron. This was the ADF's regional Defence Cooperation Program (DCP). Personnel performed liaison and monitoring functions.
International Stabilisation Force (ISF) in Timor-Leste from 2006 to 2013
In 2006, Timor-Leste experienced a domestic security crisis, which included widespread violence and civil unrest. Elements of the military sparked the unrest by protesting poor conditions and discrimination between soldiers from the country's east and west. The military body responsible for the defence of Timor-Leste, the Forças de Defesa de Timor Leste dismissed almost half of the force after the protests. Violence grew throughout the country, leading to widespread unrest.
Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Portugal intervened through the Australian-led International Stabilisation Force (ISF). The international operation, codenamed Operation Astute, was led by the ADF under Brigadier Michael Slater. Initial tasks were to:
- assist in the evacuation of foreigners
- restore stability and confine conflict to secured areas
- locate and assess weapons
- assist in communication between conflicting groups.
The operation comprised approximately 1,800 ADF personnel and supported ongoing peace and stability in Timor-Leste. By the time the deployment ended, at around the 10th anniversary of independence, Timor-Leste had grown its economy and strengthened its institutions.
United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) from 2006 to 2012
The UN established UNMIT on 25 August 2006. It was created to:
- support the government in consolidating stability
- enhance a culture of democratic governance
- facilitate political dialogue among Timorese stakeholders.
The Australian operation, codenamed Operation Tower, comprised 4 ADF personnel and 50 police at any one time.
The last few Australian troops from these operations returned home from Timor-Leste on 27 March 2013. Since then, some Australian personnel have been stationed in Dili as part of UNMIT. They provide military advice, security and training to the government of Timor-Leste.
War artist Wendy Sharpe recalled the East Timorese response to Australian troops in 1999:
In September when the INTERFET troops came in… the local people got bits of… charcoal from their burnt out houses and wrote messages all over this wall to say thank you to INTERFET. And it's really one of the most moving things you ever saw… On this wall it says, ‘Thank you very much INTERFET my darling, thank you military Australia, I love you military Australia'… It's just this outpouring of thank you… One of the things that struck me when I first arrived in Dili was the way all the people were smiling and waving… They were just so glad… it just made them feel so good that our people had come in to help them.
[Wendy Sharpe, interviewed for the Australians at War Film Archive]
Five Australians died during peace operations in East Timor. Four were defence personnel, and their names are recorded with other members of the Australian armed forces on our national Roll of Honour. One was a member of the AFP.
In January 2000, Lance Corporal Russell Eisenhuth died while serving with INTERFET.
In August 2000, Corporal Stuart Jones, 2 Cavalry Regiment, Royal Australian Armoured Corps (RAAC), died while serving with UNTAET.
In November 2007, Australian Private Ashley Baker died while serving with the ISF.
In September 2011, Craftsman Beau Pridue died while serving with ISF.
In February 2012, Sergeant Brett Kinloch of the AFP died while serving with UNMIT.
In 2009, DVA produced a commemorative poster for the 10th anniversary of Australia's involvement as part of INTERFET.
National Peacekeepers' Day
On 14 September each year, we observe National Peacekeepers' Day. It's the anniversary of the day Australia became the world's first peacekeepers to deploy into the field, in the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) in 1947. It's a day to recognise the important work of those who have served, and continue to serve, in the name of global peace.
Learn more about Australia's peacekeeping missions since 1947.
National Police Remembrance Day
On 28 September each year, all police jurisdictions in Australia honour those officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty, including on global peacekeeping operations.
International Day of UN Peacekeepers
29 May is a day of commemoration and acknowledgement of all military, police and civilian personnel who have served as peacekeepers with the UN. Since UN peacekeeping began, more than 4,000 peacekeepers from many countries have lost their lives while performing their duties under the UN flag.
Learning activities for secondary students
- 'Peacekeeping is non-coercive diplomacy where a military coalition is employed with the consent of a hostile country in an impartial, non-combatant manner to assist with conflict resolution or to provide humanitarian aid.' Discuss this definition using INTERFET as an example.
- Find Timor-Leste on a world map. Is its location near Australia significant?
- What were Australia's reasons for helping in Timor-Leste? Read former Prime Minister John Howard's Address to the Nation on 19 September 1999, on the eve of the INTERFET landing.
- From your background reading on the Australian operations of INTERFET, discuss the challenges you think the soldiers would face as peacekeepers in a conflict situation.
- Research the background and role of Major General Sir Peter Cosgrove as the commander of the Australian operations in East Timor. Why was he highly praised for his role in East Timor?
- Look at some of the artworks by Wendy Elizabeth Sharpe, Official War Artist to East Timor, on the Australian War Memorial website. What do these paintings tell you about the people of East Timor and the role of Australian peacekeepers? Has Wendy used strong colours to portray the people? Does her art portray her feelings about the East Timorese people and the peacekeeping soldiers?
- List the roles of soldiers as peacekeepers and discuss the potential dangers of each task.
- Find out if Australia has any military operations, 20 years later, to maintain peace in Timor-Leste.
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Australian Government Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (undated), 'International Force East Timor Medal', accessed 24 August 2022, https://www.pmc.gov.au/government/its-honour/international-force-east-timor-medal
Australian Government Department of Veterans' Affairs (2022), interview with Lieutenant Colonel David McCammon, Anzac Portal, accessed 24 August 2022, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/resources/david-mccammon-exciting-times-ground-oecusse
Australian War Memorial (2004), 'Operation Citadel: East Timor', Website, accessed 24 August 2022, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/LIB100007096
Australian War Memorial (2021), 'INTERFET', Commemorate, accessed 24 August 2022, https://www.awm.gov.au/commemoration/interfet
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Australian War Memorial (undated), 'Operation Tanager', Unit History, accessed 24 August 2022, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/E84775
Clinton, William J. (1999), ‘Remarks to American and Asian Business Leaders in Auckland', The American Presidency Project, 12 September, accessed 24 August 2022, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/remarks-american-and-asian-business-leaders-auckland
Gosling, Luke (2019), 'INTERFET and the defence of Australia,' The Lowy Institute, 20 September, accessed 24 August 2022, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/interfet-and-defence-australia
Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) (2016), ‘The Profile of Human Rights Violations in Timor-Leste, 1974–1999'. A Report to the Commission on Reception, Truth and Reconciliation of Timor-Leste, accessed 24 August 2022, https://hrdag.org/content/timorleste/Benetech-Report-to-CAVR.pdf
Ryan, Alex (2000), ‘Primary Responsibilities and Primary Risks: Australian Defence Force Participation in the International Force East Timor', Land Warfare Studies Centre Study Paper 304, accessed 24 August 2022, https://researchcentre.army.gov.au/sites/default/files/sp304_primary_responsibilities_and_primary_risks-alan_ryan.pdf
University of New South Wales (2000), Australians at War Film Archive, interview with Wendy Sharpe, 26 May, accessed 24 August 2022, https://australiansatwarfilmarchive.unsw.edu.au/archive/2521
University of New South Wales (2003), Australians at War Film Archive, interview with Donald Barnby, 14 August, accessed 24 August 2022, https://australiansatwarfilmarchive.unsw.edu.au/archive/618
Wikipedia contributors (2022). Operation Astute, in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, accessed 24 August 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Operation_Astute&oldid=1113778362
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