Peace settling in Timor as Kiwi mission ends

East Timor dignitaries and Australian Defence Force personnel look on as outgoing NZ Defence Force staff welcome and challenge a small team taking their place.
East Timor dignitaries and Australian Defence Force personnel look on as outgoing NZ Defence Force staff welcome and challenge a small team taking their place.

As a group of New Zealand soldiers have dinner at a beachfront restaurant in Dili, East Timor’s capital city, a boy passing by says ‘‘kia ora bro’’. Others put it more simply: ‘‘Kiwi, good.’’

This week the last batch of New Zealand soldiers left East Timor after an on-again off-again presence dating back to 1999. 

Back then, the former Portuguese colony had voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia, which invaded in 1975.

A wave of violence then swept though the country as pro-Indonesia militia, backed by that country’s military, couldn’t accept the result.

Horrendous crimes were committed including the massacre at the south western city of Suai where about 200 people were murdered as they sought shelter in a church.

And in 2000, Private Leonard Manning became New Zealand’s first soldier to die since the Vietnam War when he was killed by jungle militia near the Indonesian border.

The situation calmed down again in the early part of last decade as independence was finally achieved in 2002 and foreign troops went home. But internal politics reared its ugly head four years later.

Rogue elements of the military revolted, the police force collapsed and Dili was on fire.

New Zealand troops returned to restore order, some running straight off a Hercules aeroplane in full combat gear.

Fearful for their safety, New Zealand Embassy staff locked the gates of their beachfront property and cowered inside.

New Zealand police followed to act as peacekeepers – and some are still posted to the country as part of a United Nations mission that ends on December 31.

‘‘I arrived to find that the rule of law had broken down in Timor,’’ Superintendent John Spence said.

New Zealand, Australia, Portugal and Malaysia police filled the breach. Since then about 300 New Zealand officers have served there.

‘‘There were armed gangs wandering the streets of Dili. There was rebellion,’’ Spence said.

There were also refugee camps for Timorese forced to flee their homes which Spence said were ‘‘hot beds of trouble’’.

‘‘There were no police officers around so villagers used to throw rocks at the IDP [internally displaced persons] camps and the IDP camps would throw rocks back.’’

The last of these camps was dissolved two years ago as East Timor has transformed over the past few years.

It’s still a poor country though, and many of the 1.1 million people are subsistence farmers who live in areas devoid of power and any contact with the outside world.

Dili, a city of about 200,000 people, is growing and there the New Zealand military remained, under the banner of the Australian-led International Stabilisation Force that officially ended its mandate on October 31.

This year, East Timor held largely trouble free presidential and parliamentary elections and it is felt the country can now handle it‘s own internal security, so the stabilisation force and UN police are off home. 

Since 2006, 13 rotations of New Zealand soldiers have travelled there on six-month tours of duty, costing about $100 million.

The final contingent of 80 personnel returned home to Burnham Military Camp, near Christchurch, last night.

They leave behind only a small team of people to clean up, and five advisers working with the East Timorese military.

Similarly, while the New Zealand police have finished peacekeeping duties, senior officers will stay on for four years to advise on community policing.

Those in command all agree it is time to leave East Timor and there is unlikely to be any reason to return. They hail the work of the New Zealanders as a success.

‘‘We don’t have a dog in the fight. We came here because we want to be here,’’ said Major Tim Tuatini, officer in charge of the final rotation of Kiwi soldiers.

He first served in East Timor in 2001, and like many who have come back, said the country had changed immensely.

‘‘It’s just the small things. There’s a lot of children. There’s a lot of scooters now, yellow taxis, vehicles moving up and down. It’s the hustle and bustle I’d expect from any Asian city.’’

New Zealand Colonel Martin Dransfield is chief military liaison officer to the United Nations mission in East Timor, a post he has held for two years.

On the ground, he served in the country in 2000 and thinks it is ready to handle its own internal security.

‘‘Are they capable of law and order? I think it’s been tested,’’ he said.

That’s not to say East Timor is a country without its share of problems.

Poverty and disease are rampant, unemployment is high and basic nutrition is lacking.

‘‘There’s still stunted growth in this country,’’ Dransfield said.

But these are problems the East Timor government will have to work through.

For now, most of New Zealand’s military and police presence in the country has finished.

This week the New Zealand military base was lifted by a rousing haka as the final contingent of soldiers handed over to the team responsible for packing up, and a stone from the base, known as the Kiwi Rock, was moved to the New Zealand Embassy.

There, ambassador Tony Fautua talked of moving the two countries’ relationship away from one of military and policing to one of trade, education and development.

It’s hoped future delegations to East Timor will be from the likes of Fonterra, rather than the military or police.