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.
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