August 30 will mark the tenth anniversary of East Timor’s successful vote for independence from Indonesia after 24 years of brutal Indonesian rule. Is former United States President Bill Clinton deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize for stopping a genocide at the hands of the Indonesian military against the Timorese people?
In the lead up and in the aftermath of the historic United Nations sponsored referendum in East Timor, pro-Indonesian Timorese militia groups went on a murderous rampage at the behest of the Indonesian authorities.
The Clinton Administration was so concerned that on February 22, 1999, US Assistant Secretary of State, Stanley Roth told Australian diplomat Dr Ashton Calvert that a peacekeeping mission was unavoidable in East Timor. Dr Calvert speaking on behalf of the Australia’s Federal government said the Timorese had to sort it out themselves, in effect they were on their own.
Roth then called Australia’s reluctance to get involved as being “defeatist”. A case of Clinton tough love!
On March 7 Australia’s haughty Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, denied that it was official Indonesian government policy to support the militia groups. “But there may be some rogue elements within the armed forces who are providing arms of one kind or another to pro-integrationists who have been, you know, fighting for the cause of Indonesia,” he said.
In late September 1999, Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard sent in the troops as part of the Interfet Mission but the pretence was that our soldiers were simply keeping apart the two warring “Timorese” factions, those who wanted to stay within Indonesia and those who wanted independence.
But we now know that there was a secret war in East Timor with the Indonesian Army’s (TNI) Special Forces, the dreaded Kopassus, dressed up and pretending to be militia and attacking and killing Timorese civilians and later Australian and New Zealand soldiers.
Defence Department bureaucrat and former Fairfax journalist, Hugh White, revealed that Australia’s involvement in East Timor succeeded because of the Indonesian military’s reluctance to fight a full scale war. This is rather disingenuous. You do not find the Taliban in Afghanistan declaring a full scale war but resorting to guerilla tactics of hit and run and ambushing.
Kopassus’s objective was to inflict as many casualties on Australians and New Zealanders in the hope that their respective governments would withdraw. The Howard government used the elite Special Air Service Regiment (SASR), whose mission is normally to go behind enemy lines to gather information, in a war fighting role. But Kopassus was not stupid because it had received training from the SASR in the late 1980s and focused on hitting the regular infantry battalions that had deployed to Timor as part of the Interfet mission: airborne infantry unit, 3RAR (Parachute), 2RAR from Townsville and 5/7RAR(Mechanised) from Darwin.
In October 1999, a hundred soldiers from Charlie Company, 2RAR, were involved in the biggest shootout since the Vietnam War at a place called Motaain, close to the town of Batugade and on the Indonesian border. It was only the cool thinking of a junior commander Lance Corporal Paul Teong who helped to avert a bloodbath.
The Interfet Mission then handed over control to the United Nations Transitional Administration for East Timor (UNTAET) in January 2000, and the Australian media believed the militia had been defeated. But the militia was simply biding its time and waiting to strike at what it thought was a soft target, Australian Army reservists.
Legendary infantry battalion 6RAR from Brisbane would be the next to go to Timor. It had, over the past decade, been gutted by the cost cutting of White and another defence expert, Paul Dibb, Neither have ever served in uniform. 6RAR had to be rebuilt with reservists grabbed from other units around Australia, including reserve unit 5/6 RVR, Melbourne’s own infantry battalion. When 6RAR arrived in East Timor in early 2000 it came under ferocious militia attack but held its own.
In 1998, a year before East Timor erupted, the far-sighted Chief of the Australian Army, Lieutentant General Frank Hickling, a combat engineer who saw action in Vietnam, went from unit to unit ordering his senior commanders that he wanted all full time and reserve soldiers to sharpen up their war fighting skills. He was concerned that the army’s combat troops had gone soft because of the focus on peacekeeping missions. It was his foresight that kept Australian soldiers, both regular and reservist, alive on the battlefield in Timor despite the cutbacks from the bureaucrats.
However, the militia refused give up its mission.
On June 14, 2001 a small Australian Army patrol of eight soldiers from 4 Section, 2 Platoon , Alpha Company, 4RAR, lead by Corporal Kevin “Bambi” Campbell, a former SASR trooper, was attacked by militia near the Indonesian border. Bambi’s patrol used the radio call-sign One-Two-Alpha.
Scott Sherwin, is now a family man and tree surgeon living outside Newcastle, New South Wales, and Pete, who suffers from Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder (PTSD), survives on a military pension in Melbourne’s outer-eastern suburbs.
Both remained silent for years and had bottled up emotions but were now ready to re-examine that fateful day of June 14, 2001.
In the official 4RAR Battalion book on the East Timor mission, the incident was listed as occurring on June 1, 2001. But this was a printing error. The shootout occurred during Operation Predator (June 14-16, 2001), which was a search for militia along the border areas.
The Australian Army newspaper, on August 16, 2001, reported: “On the other hand, there have been several serious incidents. One, as recently as mid June, involved a contact with five armed men and a section from 4RAR.”
At 12.50pm, in a place known as AO Sparrow, One-Two-Alpha came under gunfire and grenade attack from a militia group consisting of five to eight men, believed to be Kopassus.
Pete, as a scout, was at the front of the patrol when the shooting erupted. Scott Sherwin, as the assault machine gunner, was at the rear and had to run forwards to support his comrades.
Pete initially saw a local man dressed in a white civilian shirt swinging a machete through the thick vegetation called lantana. It looked quite innocent. Seconds later his patrol was fired upon and everybody hit the ground.
“If the enemy were to fire back, I would be a visible target,” Scott recalled “So I let go of my fears of dying at the time, and just ran and fired.”
But it is this memory which keeps on replaying through Scott’s mind over the years and the thoughts of “what if the militia had fired directly upon him?”
As a trained soldier, Scott went into auto-pilot on that day. The army calls it contact drills. Soldiers are taught to react in a certain way when fired upon. It helps to keep fear and confusion to a minimum.
Another troubling idea that raced through Scott’s head was remembering that New Zealand soldier Private Leonard Manning was killed by militia near the town of Suai on July 24, 2000 and his body was later found mutilated.
“I think in the back of our minds we knew that if we were caught behind or captured that we would be killed or we’d be cut up then killed,” Scott said. “So our choices were quite limited.”
It seemed on that date, June 14, 2001, fate was smiling upon the soldiers of One-Two-Alpha when Pete felt the blast of one of the militia grenades, and unbelievably suffered only a scratch and, as he said, “went back to firing”. The main (machine) gunner was thrown back when a grenade landed two metres in front of him and he too got up without injury!
During the contact, three militiamen were believed to have been killed or wounded. The others probably dragged the dead or wounded back across the border into Indonesia.
“They weren’t just locals with guns,” Pete said. “They had some form of military training. They would pepper-pot the way we were trained. That is one soldier fires whilst another moves.”
The SASR was called in to track the withdrawing militia but then, inexplicably, the search was called off. A reconnaissance patrol with a tracker dog two weeks later found trails that led all the way back to the border.
The standard operating procedure (SOP) for the Kopassus/Militia was that if it was involved in a contact with UN peacekeepers, any dead or wounded were to be dragged across the border back into Indonesia. No evidence was to be left behind. The Viet Cong during the Vietnam War also dragged away dead or wounded to deny information to US and Australian troops.
Ugly rumours began to circulate that One-Two-Alpha had staged the contact to hide a UD, unauthorised discharge, that is someone from the patrol had illegally or negligently fired. The Indonesian authorities were claiming that three innocent sandalwood smugglers, without any militia links, had been murdered and were only carrying crow-bars.
“Why you would need crow-bars to cut trees with?” Pete said. “They were the first crow-bars that ever fired shots.”
A United Nations investigation was launched and the members of One-Two-Alpha were forbidden to talk about the incident but were later cleared of any wrongdoing.
Bambi Campbell was given a UN Commander’s Commendation certificate but missed out on an Australian Army bravery medal. Likewise Clinton missed out on the Nobel Peace Prize. Sometimes doing the right thing does not mean recognition! More importantly, in 2002 the long suffering East Timor became the newly independent nation of Timor Leste.