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Australia intervenes in East Timor drama

Australian Associated Press - January 1, 2020

By mid-1999, Australian military involvement in East Timor was looking increasingly possible.

It appeared so likely that the government used it as a justification for rejecting a UN request for a military contribution for its operations in war-ravaged Kosovo.

Cabinet documents for 1998 and 1999 – released by the National Archives of Australia – give scant details of the unfolding situation in East Timor as it advanced to independence from Indonesia.

In late April 1999, prime minister John Howard met new Indonesian president BJ Habibie in Bali.

The cabinet minute of April 28 noted Habibie had reaffirmed his commitment to the UN supervised consultation planned for August 8 "while recognising the challenges in full implementation in the period leading up to and beyond the act of consultation."

That was actually the independence ballot – Indonesia did not like the term referendum – which was ultimately held on August 30.

Almost 80 per cent of East Timorese voted for independence, prompting a reign of terror and destruction by pro-Indonesian militia groups and their Indonesian military and police sponsors.

That ended abruptly on September 20, when the first Australian troops of the Australian-led INTERFET mission landed in the capital Dili.

It was to be Australia's largest overseas military deployment since Vietnam, peaking at 6500 personnel.

Seven months earlier, the government made one significant decision to prepare the Australian Defence Force for what was to come.

In a cabinet decision on February 9, 1999, it was decided to bring a second Army brigade up to 28 days' notice to deploy "in order to ensure that the government has options to respond to the range of demands that could arise on our region."

That meant the ADF was better prepared to assemble a task force for deployment into East Timor.

Events moved incredibly swiftly, said former treasurer Peter Costello, guest speaker at the cabinet documents' media launch.

He dates the start of East Timor's passage to independence to January 15, 1998 when Indonesian president Suharto appeared on national television signing papers for the International Monetary Fund bailout.

Standing over the humiliated president was IMF managing director Michel Camdessus.

Indonesia was on its knees, hard hit by the Asian financial crisis and at risk of complete economic collapse. Mr Camdessus had insisted the president personally sign the bailout papers on national television.

"It was enormously damaging for Suharto, who was forced from office shortly thereafter," Mr Costello said.

Suharto would never have countenanced independence for East Timor but his successor BJ Habibie, in charge of a nation in political and economic crisis, was more amenable to change. He raised the possibility of East Timor becoming an autonomous province.

In December 1998, Howard made a bold move, writing to Habibie and suggesting autonomy followed by an act of self-determination some years down the track.

"Habibie shocked the Australian government and the international community in January 1999 by announcing that East Timor would be offered a choice between autonomy under Indonesian sovereignty or full independence," said national archives cabinet historian Paul Strangio.

Howard's important letter isn't mentioned in the cabinet documents.

Professor Strangio said the cabinet records also reveal nothing of the worsening security situation in East Timor or the possibility of Australian involvement in some form of international peacekeeping intervention.

On the day of the ballot, cabinet noted a report from the prime minister of his conversation with President Habibie. Mr Howard reaffirmed the responsibility of Indonesia to ensure security and stability in East Timor and the safety of Australians.

While the cabinet documents are silent on the prospect of military intervention, it was clearly under consideration.

On June 17, 1999 the government considered a UN request for Australian military liaison officers and police for the Kosovo mission.

The government responded that in light of Australia's existing and prospective commitment of police and ADF officers in East Timor, Bougainville and elsewhere, the UN be advised that Australia was not able to contribute to the UN operations in Kosovo.

Initially Australia contributed 50 police and half a dozen military liaison officers to the UN Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) which deployed in early June.

Australia was reluctant to intervene militarily without Indonesian agreement, which only came on September 12. Cabinet's national security committee gave the go-ahead on September 15.

Source: https://www.9news.com.au/national/australia-intervenes-in-east-timor-drama/654c17fe-eab2-47e0-bd9d-2c9c8c5575aa