Speech by His Excellency the President of the Republic, Mr Francisco Guterres Lú Olo,at the commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of the Arrival of the INTERFET mission in Timor-Leste
Twenty years ago today, the International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) – led by Australia and under the command of Major General Peter Cosgrove, later Governor-General of Australia – arrived in Dili to uphold, on behalf of the international community, UN Resolution 1264, whose primary goal was to restore peace and stability to Timor-Leste.
Today, we commemorate an important date that is part of the history of our struggle for self-determination and independence.
The dream of liberation from foreign rule became a reality on 30 August 1999, when, with courage and determination, our people exercised our right to self-determination through internationally recognised universal suffrage, by personal and secret ballot. In this referendum held by the United Nations, about 80 percent of our population decided to reject the proposed autonomy within Indonesia, thereby determining the independence of our country.
But the realisation of that dream came at a heavy cost. The announcement of the popular consultation results generated heightened tensions that culminated in a wave of violence and terror perpetrated by pro-Indonesia militias, with the connivance of members of the TNI.
The world witnessed, in shock, the destruction of the country’s infrastructure. Homes were burnt in every municipality, and a climate of fear and terror quickly spread throughout the territory.
The ‘scorched-earth’ policy resulted in the destruction of close to two thirds of our territory, including a large portion of our cultural heritage, our institutional memory. According to the report of the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, between fourteen hundred and fifteen hundred people were killed or disappeared in 1999, and approximately two hundred and fifty thousand Timorese people took refuge in camps in West Timor.
The destruction and terror experienced in Timor-Leste stirred protests around the world. On behalf of the State of Timor-Leste, I must note the positive impact of the civilian human chain formed in support of Timor-Leste in several countries. Thousands of people took to the streets to express their rejection of violence and demanded actions from their respective governments to help restore peace and stability in Timor-Leste. Also in response to the demands of that relentless and persistent human chain, the United Nations member states, under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, approved Resolution 1264, on 15 September 1999, regarding the establishment of a multinational force that would ultimately involve the following countries: Australia, New Zealand, United States, United Kingdom, Thailand, Brazil, Canada, Fiji, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Malaysia, Norway, Pakistan, Philippines, Portugal, Singapore, and South Korea.
Under the command of Major General Peter Cosgrove, the INTERFET arrived in Dili on 20 September and found a devastated city, where fear and terror still reigned.
While the INTERFET stabilised the situation, our Armed Forces for the National Liberation of East Timor (FALINTIL) remained in their encampments at Waimori-Laleia, Atelari-Baucau, and Nahareka and Osolekimeta, in Ossú. A mix of emotions were felt in those encampments, in light of the chaos and bloodshed experienced throughout the country.
Nevertheless, the FALINTIL were able to remain calm because they knew they were on the last stretch of a long path to victory. They did not take any retaliatory action. They remained duly commanded, disciplined and armed, upholding the agreement of 5 May signed in New York, between Portugal and Indonesia: that security remained exclusively under the control of Indonesian authorities.
With the arrival of the INTERFET, many humanitarian organisations established themselves in the territory to provide emergency assistance to refugees and internally displaced persons, providing food aid and basic healthcare. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to those organisations and thousands of volunteers who made the survival of our population in those extremely harsh conditions a little more bearable.
And I also want to pay tribute to the media who dared to denounce the atrocities committed in September and spread, as far wide as possible, our people’s dream of independence. Without them, the world would not have learnt about our struggle for self-determination and independence.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Today’s commemoration mostly comprises a heartfelt tribute to all who honoured the flags of their countries by participating in the stabilisation operation that culminated in the end of the Indonesian occupation and paved the way for the formal restoration of independence of Timor-Leste, as a nation.
Twenty-one countries contributed to varying degrees and at different periods to the INTERFET, with Australia and New Zealand playing the most important roles.
We, therefore, thank the government of Australia for undertaking the commitment to lead the international peacekeeping effort aimed at restoring order in our country.
The INTERFET was a military success and represents a model for peacekeeping missions. Fortunately, it fulfilled the mission of stabilisation.
The UN mandate was implemented successfully and in compliance with the agreed upon rules.
The INTERFET had one of the most robust and explicit written mandates since the Gulf War, having arrived equipped, armed, and prepared to act in a volatile environment marked by high risk and uncertainty.
The operation was given robust rules of engagement, to ensure that force should be used only as a last resource, discriminatingly and proportionally.
The Timorese people anxiously awaited the United Nations intervention and warmly welcomed the soldiers of the INTERFET. The arrival of the INTERFET in the country was truly important, because it immediately created a climate of security and a stable and safe environment for the intervention of the UNTAET and for our path towards the restoration of independence, in May 2002.
Your gesture of solidarity remains within our hearts. The State of Timor-Leste expressed his appreciation by bestowing the ‘Medal of Solidarity of Timor-Leste’, upon foreign military personnel who served on a mandated mission to assist with Peace and Stability operations during INTERFET’s deployment, between 20 September 1999 and 28 February 2000.
The Collar of the Order of Timor-Leste was bestowed upon its intrepid Commander in 2009 and, subsequently, the awarding of the Grand Collar of the Order of Timor-Leste, in 2016, whilst as the Governor-General of Australia.
This Order was established to express, with prestige and dignity, Timor-Leste’s recognition for those, both nationals and foreigners, who in their professional or social activity, or even in a spontaneous act of bravery or altruism, have significantly contributed to the benefit of the country, the Timorese people or Humanity.
On behalf of the Republic and the People of Timor-Leste, I reaffirm today our most sincere thanks to all who gave the best of themselves during INTERFET. Allow me to address a special word of thanks to our dear friend, General Sir Peter Cosgrove.
In February 2000, operational command was given to the UN peacekeeping forces (PKF), the military component of the UNTAET.
We again welcomed the former peacekeeping members of INTERFET in 2016, following the establishment of the multi-dimensional programme for Australian veterans, ‘Timor Awakening’, which included the active participation of Timorese veterans. Within the scope of this programme, Timor-Leste is considered a sanctuary for the rehabilitation of Australian veterans who were deployed not only in our country, but also in other conflict situations. Other activities are also carried out simultaneously, including the development of historical sites connected to both World War II and our own national liberation struggle. This programme can therefore contribute to the development of heritage tourism in Timor-Leste, a special type of tourism that should become one of our priorities within the context of economic diversification. This set of activities will certainly strengthen the solidarity bonds between our veterans and our peoples.
Timor-Leste is an extremely young nation that has experienced centuries of colonial exploitation followed by a violent occupation.
Timor-Leste represented a difficult test for the UN in the task of leading the post-conflict Timorese society to political stability, to economic recovery, and to reconciliation.
Today, after 20 years, we are able to say that not only can we maintain peace and stability for ourselves, but have also built the foundations of a peaceful, fair, and increasingly tolerant society. We are a multifaceted people, with varied ethnic origins, religions, and beliefs, but we are united by a common sentiment of being Timorese, with a past marked by the heroism of a struggle that crossed the seas.
Since the restoration of independence, Timor-Leste has been building the foundations of a new state, based on a modern Constitution.
Our challenges are known. We must simply find the right path to a model of democratic and sustainable development of our society, capable of eradicating poverty, in every aspect.
In this second stage of our struggle, we will continue to count on the solidarity of our friends in the international network we have built, as well as on friendly bilateral and multilateral cooperation between countries.
Timor-Leste continues to be the ground for us to plant the seeds that will bear fruit in the near future.
Long live the Peacekeepers!
Long live the People of Timor-Leste!