Repaying Some of the Debt: Australia leads a United Nations Peacekeeping force

Australia’s involvement in the multi-national force [is] just a start on repaying some of the debt the Country owes the East Timorese for the selfless support they gave the Commandos.

Maj General Peter Cosgrove,
INTERFET Commander,
11 November 1999

East Timor continued to be a headache for Indonesia through the 1990s. Despite this the Indonesian Army, with considerable political power and economic interests in East Timor, strongly opposed moves for independence.

In 1998 President Habibie came to power in Indonesia and in January 1999 he agreed to a United Nations organised independence referendum in East Timor.

Australia was a key contributor of money, equipment and personnel to the referendum’s organiser, United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET).

Indonesian-backed militia launched a disruptive and violent intimidation campaign against the population and UNAMET personnel in an attempt to produce an anti-independence vote. Despite this, on 30 August 1999 nearly 80 percent of Timorese voted for independence.

Angry militia in collusion with the police and army went on a bloody rampage, looting and killing innocent people in Suai and elsewhere. Their country-wide scorched-earth policy destroyed infrastructure, equipment and buildings. Thousands fled to the mountains or were forced into West Timor.

However, media coverage caused Australian and international outrage. The Australian Government led international efforts to have Indonesia agree to UN intervention to end the chaos.

On 20 September 1999, 5,500 Australian troops spearheaded the 10,000 strong International Force for East Timor (INTERFET). This force quickly ended the violence and brought the situation under control.

Independence was declared on 20 May 2002 with Xanana Gusmão as President.