East Timor has been through some torrid times in recent decades and one Wairarapa man has played a pivotal role in getting Asia's newest country back on its feet.
Colonel Martin Dransfield was commanding the Second New Zealand Battalion (NZBAT2) with United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET) in 2000 when violence threatened to scuttle to the territory's newly proclaimed independence. He has just returned to New Zealand after spending two years as the United Nations Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) chief military liaison officer leading up to full transition of security to local authorities in November.
Speaking from his small farm at Matahiwi, Colonel Dransfield says it has been an incredible experience working with the UN to re- establish local control in the country. While he admits some people are cynical about the UN's involvement in some international activities, their role in East Timor has been extremely beneficial.
"The UN is a great organisation to work for. It allowed me to really get involved in preparing local forces with things like security, human rights and setting up medical clinics.
"I have a lot of confidence in the UN. They have a lot of brilliant people working for them who are incredibly committed."
He was in charge of five teams which have been moving around the islands helping local people establish competent security forces.
Colonel Dransfield said the UN mission was critical to the ongoing support of local development.
The proof of the success of their mission is that they are no longer needed and local forces have matured to the point where they can manage their own security.
"What I felt when I left was the job was complete. You have a sense the people and the country can do their job without your support," he says.
The UN will continue to have a presence in Timor and bilateral missions will continue.
Since independence, the country has developed its sense of self and pride in the direction it is taking, says Colonel Dransfield. It has gone from a time in the wake of the unrest following the independence referendum in 1999 when many villages were left deserted, there was no national grid meaning no power, very little food production and widespread poverty to being one of the highest growth economies in Asia.
"The change is almost indescribable," he says.
One of the things that struck Colonel Dransfield the most was that despite their tough history, the Timorese people are happy and optimistic. East Timor has considerable oil resources and the government has taken a measured approach to exploiting that resource to ensure a steady income for many years to come.
While he has been away from his family for a long time, his children, his fiancee Fiona Heberley and her children have all made trips to East Timor and had a real involvement with people. His son Isaac has taught there. Daughter Leah and stepdaughter Sarah have been involved in various projects including a technical college that offers scholarships to locals, which was set up by the family of Private Leonard Manning, who was killed in East Timor in 2000. The girls' school, St Matthew's Collegiate, has been very supportive of these fundraising projects.
As well as commanding NZBAT2 in East Timor, Colonel Dransfield commanded the New Zealand Forces in Bamiyan province in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010.
- Wairarapa News