In recent years the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dampened enthusiasm in the west for overseas military interventions. East Timor reminds us there are occasions when sending in outside troops doesn’t simply fan the flames of an intractable, entrenched conflict, but can have a lasting positive effect. Indeed it is arguable that without a United Nations led intervention in 1999, the country almost certainly wouldn’t exist in its current form, and might not even exist at all.
By the mid 1990s, it had become clear to many within the Suharto regime that Timor was not about to knuckle down and accept its status as a province of Indonesia, and the costly process of subjugating the East Timorese people was not bearing fruit.
Several changes turned the tide. The first was advances in communications technology. It was simply no longer possible to exclude the world media as it had been after the 1975 invasion, and keep news of atrocities and human rights abuses from seeping out. A massacre of several hundred protestors at a funeral in 1991 triggered broad international condemnation. This in turn resulted in both the United States and Australia, hitherto covert but staunch supporters of Indonesia’s cause, distancing themselves from Indonesia’s claims on East Timor.
At the same time Indonesia’s sagging economy led many within the country to question the massive cost of continuing to occupy East Timor. Furthermore, the old communist bogeyman had been rendered largely irrelevant by the end of the cold war. Indonesia’s resolve was wavering, and with new president BJ Habibie succeeding Suharto, the prospect of East Timorese independence became a real possibility.
However welcome that might have been across large parts of East Timor, separation from Indonesia also threatened to throw up some losers. Most significant of these were the militias who had been trained by the Indonesian army to enforce Indonesian rule. The prospect of independence, and with it some settling of old scores, terrified them, and they vowed to do whatever they could to prevent it. This took the form of setting out on a rampage of destruction following a vote eventually offered by Indonesia in favour of independence. Their rationale was as simple as it was brutal – if they couldn’t have the country, no one would.
It became clear that unless order was forcibly restored, East Timor would soon slip into anarchy and civil war. A multinational peacekeeping force, led by the Australians, effectively created an arena in which a new government could function and begin to create the independent state of Timor Leste. This force was able to disarm the militias, train and support the local military and police, and provide a framework around which the new nation’s infrastructure could be created.
The Timorese people have much to be thankful for to the Australians, New Zealanders and other nations contributing troops to INTERFET. For the Australians, stepping in at this critical moment in East Timor’s history was perhaps the least they could do to atone for the cynical manner in which Gough Whitlam’s government in the 1970s put economic and political relations with Indonesia over any concern for the plight of the Timorese people.