Phil Goff with Timorese children in 2007, while he was Defence Minister. Photo: Supplied/NZ Government

Today marks 20 years since independence was declared in Timor-Leste.  

New Zealand played a big role in making sure the country transitioned to a functioning democracy after the 1999 independence referendum. We helped to build a nation from the ground up, after 24 years of Indonesian rule that marked a dark period in the country’s history – one of violence, starvation, and thousands of deaths.  

But New Zealand had also played a less honourable role in that earlier, dark time. National and Labour governments voted against UN resolutions supporting the Timorese people and invited the Indonesian military to visit NZ to learn ‘counter-insurgency’ techniques.  

Peace campaigners here fought for years to raise the issues and eventually government policy turned around.  

One of those campaigners was a young Phil Goff – a future foreign affairs minister, and now Auckland’s mayor. But in 1975, he was a teacher outraged at the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in the wake of its first independence vote.  

The Detail speaks to him, and to Major General (Rtd) Martyn Dunne, who led the New Zealand joint forces operation in what was then East Timor.  

New Zealand troops arrive by helicopter in Timor-Leste.
New Zealand troops arrive by helicopter in Timor-Leste. Photo: Supplied / NZDF

“The invasion and the killings – it was a bit like Ukraine really, but this time the West chose to turn a blind eye,” says Goff of that time.  

“In a whole lot of senses, the reaction from the Western or democratic world was shameful. It was almost a condoning of the invasion, notwithstanding the ample evidence of the high-level killing of people, of civilians – we even had Australian and New Zealand journalists murdered there, and neither Australia, nor the United States, nor New Zealand spoke out in strong terms about what an outrage it was.  

“It seemed so unfair that we had turned a blind eye to the plight of the Timorese at their time of need.” 

When he went into politics, Goff kept up an interest in Timor, went there with a parliamentary delegation in 1994, and was part of the international observer force in the referendum in 1999.  

That referendum was overwhelmingly in favour of independence, but Indonesian-backed militias sought to overturn the result by violent action.  

New Zealand troops in Timor-Leste talking.
New Zealand troops in Timor-Leste talking. Photo: Supplied / NZDF

The UN stepped in, and New Zealand sent a significant contribution – its largest deployment since the Korean War. The mission was to bring stability and stop the violence.   

After a period of direct UN governance involving 22 countries, Timor-Leste became an independent state on May 20, 2002. 

Major General (Rtd) Martyn Dunne says when they arrived in 1999 as part of the UN-backed armed intervention force the place had been absolutely ransacked – destroyed.  

“Total destruction of buildings … and there wasn’t a soul around,” he says.  

The locals had been shunted behind fences near the port where they were living in squatter settlements.

“Some of them had been made to wear red and white scarves – it was really quite sinister.”  

Dunne describes how the New Zealanders went to work under horrible circumstances: “We were still finding bodies in wells, for example, for months afterwards.” 

He also talks about the legacy for the armed forces from that time, and the lasting ties forged with those who were involved. 

Timorese people welcoming New Zealand troops.
Timorese people welcoming New Zealand troops. Photo: Supplied / NZDF

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