Australia deploys troops to East Timor, organises and leads INTERFET

September 20, 2018

On 20 September 1999, Australia deployed troops to East Timor (now Timor Leste) and superbly led the International Force East Timor (INTERFET) to restore security and order to the tiny country to our immediate north.

INTERFET was a multinational, non-U.N. peace-making taskforce set up to restore security, order and a path to independence. It was a path that the East Timorese had clearly voted for just weeks before, followed by an eruption of violence and a humanitarian crisis instigated by pro-Indonesian militia. (See further details below.)

Australian Major General - later Governor-General and Sir - Peter Cosgrove commanded the 11,500 troops and 22 nations involved in INTERFET with great expertise and distinction. Australian forces made up nearly half of the troops, naval assets and other supports of INTERFET and served with great effectiveness and distinction.

Once hostilities and the crisis had abated and security had been restored, INTERFET handed over command of military operations to the peace-keeping United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) – around five months later on 28 February 2000.

Later reviews showed that INTERFET stretched Australian defence forces due part due to complacency and/or funding cuts over the preceding decade, illustrating that a larger threat and effort may have been harder to counter. These findings may have influenced the Howard Government to formally invoke, for the first time in 50 years, the ANZUS Treaty (Australia-US Alliance) soon after the 2001 September 11 attacks on US soil.  The threat of Islamic terrorism to Australia and our region needed allied back-up, cooperation and assurance, especially considering Indonesia's angst at losing East Timor and Australia's involvement.

Commemorate the deployment of Australian forces to East Timor and our successful, leading role in the effort by:

  • if you are in/near Canberra, visiting the Australian War Memorial there and checking out its display on the East Timor conflict(s)
  • if you are in/near southern Adelaide, visiting the plaque at the Goolwa RSL commemorating those who served in East Timor (1999-2000)
  • viewing this film footage of the conflict (which also includes our WWII involvement in East Timor)
  • having a meal and/or a drink down at your local Returned and Services League of Australia (RSL) Club and paying respects to the men and women who have served our country and are doing so now
  • following the Royal Australian ArmyAir Force and/or Navy on Facebook to show your support for our land, air and sea defences (but without painting the nail of your pinky (finger) pink), and/or
  • sharing this Action Plan post on social media with family, friends, veterans, conservatives, anti-nihilists, fellow proud Aussie patriots and those that still think our borders, national interests, values, freedoms, culture and way of life are worth fighting for.

Further details on the East Timor crisis and Australia’s military assistance
The Roman Catholic, former Portuguese colony of East Timor had been invaded and annexed by Indonesia in 1975, with Australia - and the world - declining to get involved. The extent to which the Whitlam and Fraser governments knew about, and condoned, the annexation makes for interesting reading. At the time, Australia was the only Western nation to formally recognise Indonesia's claim over East Timor.

Violence and a humanitarian crisis had erupted in East Timor in 1999, escalating after East Timor’s 30 August referendum overwhelmingly backing independence from Indonesia.

Australia contributed the most troops, naval assets and logistical support to INTERFET (5,500 troops and 14 ships) with New Zealand supplying 1,200 troops (and two ships), Thailand 1,600 troops (and one ship) and the US seven ships, logistics, intel and other support (but no ground troops).

Sadly, two Australian soldiers died in East Timor in 2000 (one through illness and one through a weapon accidentally discharging). A New Zealand soldier also died early that year – in combat with the militia.

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