Australia in Timor-Leste (East Timor) – quick guide
After supporting a UN-sponsored referendum on self-determination in August 1999, units of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) were deployed to Indonesian-occupied Timor in September 1999.
Australian engagement in Timor-Leste (East Timor) draws on the history of the “Sparrow Force” deployed to Timor during the Second World War, and Australian diplomatic and intelligence operations during the collapse of the Portuguese empire in the mid-1970s. After Indonesia’s invasion of Timor in 1975, Australia’s unique de jure recognition of the Indonesian annexation led to extensive debate and popular support for East Timor’s independence. As the Suharto regime in Indonesia collapsed in the wake of the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis, and Timor moved towards self-determination in 1999, the failure of the Australian government (and others) to take effective action led to increasing public awareness and action in Australia and the region.
In September 1999, ADF personnel were the leading units in the International Force East Timor (INTERFET), the UN-mandated multinational force formed to address the deteriorating humanitarian and security situation in the former Portuguese colony, which had been occupied by Indonesia between 1975-1999.
Australia’s ongoing operations in Timor are designed to support the Government of Timor-Leste and successive UN peacekeeping and development missions in Timor which have followed the 1999 referendum and political independence in 2002. The mandate is set out in resolutions of the UN Security Council and a 2007 MOU between the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, the United Nations and Australia.
The numbers of troops have surged at times of security crises, including a major upsurge of urban conflict in April / May 2006 and the attempted assassination of Timor’s President Jose Ramos Horta in February 2008.
ADF forces remain in Timor-Leste “to provide a robust response capability to support the Government of Timor-Leste and the United Nations Police”, a multi-national policing operation that is part of the United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT).
This briefing book covers the period after the 2006 crisis – there are now over 650 Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel in Timor as part of an ANZAC Battle Group, together with Australian Federal Police (AFP) officers and other intelligence and civilian personnel. ADF units are deployed in Timor under Operation Astute and Operation Tower. AFP officers are operating through Operation Serene.
Australian and New Zealand forces make up the Australian-led International Stabilisation Force (ISF) which supports police operations by the UN Police (UNPOL) contingent in Timor (UNPOL is made up of officers from 20 other countries and Force Protection Units from Portugal, Malaysia, Pakistan and Bangladesh).
ADF personnel are supported by New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) troops from the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment (air support elements from the Royal New Zealand Air Force were withdrawn in 2008). The NZ forces are integrated into the Australian-led Battle Group deployed in Timor (hence the designation ANZAC Battle Group).
Australian forces currently deployed to Timor-Leste include:
- Headquarters Joint Task Force 631 (HQ JTF 631) drawn from elements throughout the ADF
- An ANZAC Battle Group consisting of:
- Battle Group Headquarters;
- An infantry battalion group comprised of Australian Rifle Companies and Administration Company from the Royal Australian Regiment, and a Rifle Company from the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment (Kiwi Coy);
- Elements of the Combat Engineer Regiment, Royal Australian Engineers;
- Elements from the 1st Military Police Battalion.
- Elements of the Townsville-based 3rd Combat Service Support Battalion; and
- The Timor-Leste Aviation group (TLAG) comprising about 70 personnel is attached to the Battle Group and consists of :
- An Australian Army Aviation detachment equipped with Black Hawk helicopters;
- Technical support staff, logistic staff, Headquarters and operations staff, and an emergency response cell.
Australia’s leading role continues to attract political controversy, given successive Australian governments’ support for Indonesia’s occupation of the former Portuguese colony between 1975-1999. Attitudes to the ADF and AFP deloyment are affected by perceptions of Australian interests in economic and political sectors (such as disputes over the maritime boundary and oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea) and continuing concern about the future stability and viability of political arrangements in Timor-Leste. There is increasing debate over the roles, mandate, competence and co-ordination of the international forces in Timor.
Project coordinator: Richard Tanter
Project researcher: Nic Maclellan
Additional research: Shona Hawkes
Updated: 15 May 2009