Tour de force

19:07, Feb 06 2013

Some things never change in East Timor. The heat for one. But in little more than a decade, the small nation to the north of Australia has gone from chaos to peace and stability.

One New Zealander has seen the country at its moment of need and was there when foreign forces pulled out after the successful staging of democratic elections last year.

Colonel Martin Dransfield was the commanding officer of the second battalion of Kiwi troops to East Timor in 2000 after trouble erupted as it attempted to gain independence from Indonesia.

Ten years later, he returned as chief military liaison officer for the United Nations mission.

The tanned and lithe military veteran reflects on his "unique" position in seeing a country develop so much, so fast.

Dransfield is back in New Zealand now, settled at his property at Matahiwi in Wairarapa.


While too modest to say it himself, his daughter compared his homecoming with the triumphant Hobbits returning to The Shire in The Lord of the Rings, where most were oblivious to the good work of those returning.

Dransfield and many other New Zealand soldiers serving in East Timor in the early part of last decade and again from 2006 to 2012 all played their part in calming down what was one of the world's hotspots.

Now he visits Palmerston North to see his daughter and son and takes time to reflect on his latest two-year post to East Timor.

Three months earlier, Fairfax Media caught up with him at the UN base in Dili.

In a small office, an air- conditioned oasis, Dransfield rattled off a slew of statistics and canny observations about a place he immersed himself in for two years.

In one of the seemingly ubiquitous UN 4WDs he drove reporters 90 minutes south of Dili to Madabeno, negotiating the rutted roads with a practised mastery - fitting for someone who said he needed to go home before he turned into Robinson Crusoe.

Once at the village school he ran around in his army uniform, in the heat of the day, for a game of football, exhibiting the energy needed in a job that was really a seven- day-a-week affair.

He even managed to run a couple of marathons in the sapping humidity. He's a man fit in body and mind.

Now he's back home, Dransfield is proud of what has been achieved in East Timor.

He has overseen the end of a process that turned a disorganised local military into an army worthy of serving on a UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan.

"It's the transformation of a guerrilla force into a military force, into a peacekeeping force. We've managed to achieve that in 11 years."

Dransfield has been in the army for 35 years. He joined up in Britain, serving in Norway, Berlin and Northern Ireland, and transferred to New Zealand in 1988.

In his UN role he passed all the experience on and helped Timorese forces understand human rights and protection of citizens.

Dransfield was part of a multinational team that included officers from Fiji, Nepal and Sierra Leone.

He would have weekly meetings with the Timorese defence force chiefs. A lot of the work focused on training and preparing the military for its first overseas operation.

"We did papers for them on things like cadet skills and their corrective establishment. I would advise them on anything they asked about - for example, maritime security, laws of the sea.

"Basically I acted as an adviser on things that were UN- related."

But Dransfield wasn't chained to his office. He travelled the length and breadth of the country visiting military force bases every two to three months.

His tours have convinced Dransfield East Timor is ready to look after its own security.

"It's very pleasing and satisfying to see that. I, for one, believe that the timing is right to hand over and close the [UN] mission.

"But there's still a requirement for the international community to remain engaged."

Some 200,000 of East Timor's inhabitants live in Dili, and life for many is still a basic subsistence living.

Dransfield doesn't think there will be a sudden migration to the city.

"The older generation is very much wedded to the land and subsistence farming is very much wedded to their culture, so I don't see the entire population running to the city, because there's no real need for it."

There's also a chance for old- world farms to turn into cash crops - coffee and rice.

What's needed is education, and already there are links between East Timor and universities in New Zealand, such as Massey, he says.

Timor's economy is small, but there is talk of it joining the Asean group of nations.

"I have great hope for Timor and they are sitting inside part of the world economically that's actually doing quite well at the moment."

Ten years ago the same could hardly be said and there were more problems in 2006, but Dransfield wasn't called over to serve with Kiwi troops that time.

"If I'd returned in 2006 that would have been very different."

By 2011, though, there was "tangible development". Dili had a mall and children wore school uniforms.

Even in his two-year posting with the UN Dransfield noticed quick changes, including the development of a road from the airport into town, upgraded as part of the country's 10th anniversary celebrations.

"By about May 2012, I suddenly realised that Dili had now become this city which people were really proud of.

"People said, 'This is our city. It's no longer somebody else's'. Bear in mind [East Timor] hadn't had its own independence for hundreds of years."

That goes back to the colonial-era Portuguese occupation of the country that lasted until the 1970s. When they left, Indonesia violently filled the void for the next 25 or so years until the struggle for independence was won in 2002.

But there was still internal strife, and this continued for years. Hoards of displaced people camped out in Dili.

Now Dransfield describes a city rapidly modernising and developing parks and wi-fi areas on the waterfront. Other basic services, such as electricity, are also expanding and a national power grid has been built and will soon be turned on everywhere.

And while the roads are bumpy in places, they are at least tarsealed, different from the dusty trails in Afghanistan where Dransfield headed the NZ Defence Force reconstruction team in 2009 and 2010.

The food's a bit different from that at home and items such as milk and butter are considered luxuries.

There's cause for optimism and Dransfield says the thing he misses most about East Timor is the positive attitude of the people. "Having said all that, returning to New Zealand is magic." Fairfax NZ

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