East Timor mission success

19:40, Nov 05 2012

A soldier serving in East Timor in 2000 became this country's first combat fatality since the Vietnam War when his patrol encountered pro-Indonesian militia. He was to be one of several Kiwis to die on duty before and after East Timor became an independent nation under President Xanana Gusmao in 2002 and was renamed Timor-Leste.

Now it's over. East Timor's leaders have formally declared that United Nations help is no longer needed and the peacekeepers are handing over full responsibility for policing to local authorities in Asia's youngest nation. The Kiwis stopped their patrols last month and a "special extraction team" arrived at the weekend to help bring out the troops and their equipment.

This UN mission had arrived in 2006, after a political crisis in which dozens of East Timorese were killed and thousands displaced. Its mandate was to restore security. The UN had partially handed over responsibility for security to Timorese police last March. From October 31, East Timor took total charge.

Our Government has spent about $100 million on 13 military rotations and air force operations in the past six years. If political stability is the measure of success, it has been money well spent. The only significant violence since 2006 was in 2008, when an assassination attempt was made against former president Jose Ramos-Horta. Presidential polls and general elections conducted this year were regarded as largely peaceful. The New Zealand commander, Lieutenant Colonel Steve Watts, said the country had changed a lot since this country's first involvement in 1999. "Now you see a very calm, stable environment", he observed. People were going about their day-to-day business "as you would see in New Zealand".

This contrasts with our experience in strife-torn Afghanistan.

Our work is not finished. Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully, reminding us in mid-September that the International Stabilisation Force and UN Mission would withdraw by year-end, said "New Zealand's commitment to Timor-Leste's development and security will continue". That's as it should be. The peace mission has been successful. Now we must maintain that peace and provide economic help for a struggling young country in our Asia-Pacific neighbourhood where our strategic interests should be focused.