Timor Leste: The building of a nation

By Rocío Otoya

Sydney, Australia, Sep 17 (efe-epa).- Australian general Peter Cosgrove had landed in Dili, the capital of Timor Leste, in order to restore peace in the former Portuguese colony in Southeast Asia.

A humanitarian crisis had unraveled in violent opposition of Jakarta and pro-Indonesia militias to the territory, also known as East Timor, voting for independence in the United Nations-backed referendum on Aug. 30, 1999. The referendum began the process that eventually brought an end to 24 years of Indonesian occupation.

Cosgrove was in charge of the International Force East Timor (INTERFET), jointly established by more than 20 countries with a mandate from the UN to “spot the violence” in the aftermath of the referendum and “provide immediate security to the people of Timor Leste who had been brutalized and murdered, in some cases by the pro-integration militia,” he told EFE.

Despite a campaign of terror unleashed by the integrationist militias with support from the Indonesian military, the Timorese had flocked to the polling booths with hope.

However, the atmosphere during the referendum was “very tense. (They were) happy but worried… It was the beginning of a new dawn,” former priest and Australian aid worker Pat Walsh – a member of Canberra’s delegation of observers during the one-of-a-kind referendum – told EFE in an interview.

“That was the first time that (the UN) was there… the Indonesians were responsible for security… It was like putting a fox in the hen house,” said Walsh, who also served as an advisor to the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in the country.


The joy over 78.5 percent of the votes favoring independence was short lived with the tension soon giving way to disappointment and fury among the integrationist groups and officials who “had convinced the president of Indonesia, (Bacharuddin Jusuf) Habibie that the vote would go Indonesia’s way,” Walsh said.

It was not long before vengeance was sought. In all corners of Timor Leste the integrationist militias – carrying Indonesian flags and firearms, spears and machetes – went on a rampage against pro-independence locals, indiscriminately beating, killing and burning houses, shops and offices, including those of the UN.

Within weeks, the violence, which forced the evacuation of UN personnel, had resulted in 1,400 deaths, half a million people displaced and the destruction of around 80 percent of the existing infrastructure.

Faced with the pressing need to stabilize Timor Leste, the UN Security Council approved a resolution to send an international force led by Australia to the country in the fastest and most effective way in order to tackle the crisis.

“There was very strong pressure, including from the United States. President Bill Clinton and Congress played a very decisive role,” former Timor Leste president Jose Ramos-Horta – the international voice of the Timorese during their independence struggle and co-recipient of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize – told EFE.


“The town was mostly deserted. On street corners you could see bands of militias and Indonesian soldiers whose jobs were to secure the route for my little motorcade,” Cosgrove said of his arrival in Dili on Sep. 19, 1999, a day before his troops were deployed.

The commander of the INTERFET found himself in a high-risk environment due to the deadly violence, but the UN’s return to Timor Leste helped kick off the mammoth task of reconstruction and establishing peace so that the young nation could write its own history.

For the UN, the risks went beyond the immediate violence, with the possibility of a major disaster such as in Rwanda, said Australian historian Geoffrey Robinson, referring to the international community’s failure to prevent the genocide in the African nation in the 1990s, in which around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.

“Even during the worst of the violence, and in the midst of the terrible siege of early September, we often asked ourselves what the legacy of our mission would be, and whether we would be party to another UN fiasco,” Robinson, a former official at the UN Political Affairs Office in Timor Leste, wrote in his article “With unamet [United Nations Mission in East Timor] in East Timor: A historian’s personal view,” published in 2000.

In retrospect, Cosgrove – who went on to become the governor general, Queen Elizabeth II’s representative in Australia – believes that the international force “could have gone even faster… but these things do take time. Virtually everything we attempted could have been done better, but I was very proud how our men and women actually behaved.”


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