Defence personnel's unfinished business in Timor-Leste

For some New Zealand military personnel who served in East Timor (now known as Timor Leste), the bond did not end when their deployment was over. Now, almost 20 years later, New Zealand Defence Force Lt Col Martin Dransfield writes about how they are back, working with Australian counterparts to open an English language school in Same.

My journey in Timor began in early 2000 as the Commanding Officer of the Second New Zealand Battalion on the southern border between what was then known as East Timor and Indonesia. Following the 1999 referendum, independence was on the horizon, hostile militia were actively trying to stop that process, civilian lives were in turmoil and thousands of New Zealand military personnel saw service there. Five Kiwis lost their lives during the conflict.

With independence achieved in May 2002 and stability restored, the New Zealand flag was finally lowered over the Kiwi base in late 2002. But while, from a military perspective, we left with a feeling of a job well done, many of us who served came to realise the job wasn’t over, and nor was our time in this young island nation.


Returning after 17 years. IMAGE: NZDF

Fast forward almost 17 years and in June this year I connected with a group of Australian veterans, as part of a programme named Timor Awakening. We wanted to do more than just support the Timorese; our goal was also to support veterans who had served on operations around the world. By working together with Timorese veterans and communities throughout Timor Leste, veterans get a real sense of teamwork and achievement, similar to that experienced on operations. These connections rekindle purpose, camaraderie, and a sense of making a positive difference in an often challenging world.

One of the main projects has been building an English language school at Same, Manufahi District, which is in the isolated south region of Timor Leste. In late June, I found myself working alongside Timorese students and fellow veterans from Australia and New Zealand who had served in operational theatres around the globe, including Vietnam, Iraq, Timor Leste and Afghanistan. 

Our task was to dig the foundations of the school on land gifted by Timorese veterans using picks and shovels, similar to those we used to dig trenches and shell scrapes. While it was back-breaking work, the feeling of achievement was incredible, and even more so when the school was completed in late September.

But the job is still not over. Because while construction has finished, and the pupils are keen to learn, an English school needs textbooks and teachers. The next step is to begin identifying volunteers to teach English and to source and deliver textbooks. 

You may ask why build an English language school? The short answer is because the Timorese want to learn English in order to enjoy opportunities, such as gaining scholarships to study in Australia in New Zealand. They also want to develop the tourist industry and attract Australians and Kiwis to visit their beautiful country and communities. Working in the tourist industry, and many others, requires a level of English.


Timorese want to learn English in order to enjoy opportunities. IMAGE: NZDF

I know many other veterans will want to be part of this project. The next step is to develop on-site accommodation for the teachers and to start developing job descriptions and recruiting teachers.

Timor Leste in 2019 is a world away from the carnage our people witnessed first-hand when they were first deployed in 1999.

When we took over in May 2000 we witnessed a regular flow of traumatised refugees returning across the border to find that their houses had been destroyed by fire. All the public buildings were in ruins and the power lines pulled down. The shells of houses still standing had no roofs; and were instead covered by United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) tarpaulins. To make matters worse, different militia groups began crossing the border into East Timor in an attempt to disrupt the peacekeeping forces’ efforts. 

During the following months, we gradually got on top of the militia, but not without a huge cost. Two of my soldiers were killed in militia contacts, Private Len Manning and Sherpa Devi Ram Jaise, from the Nepalese Company. Despite these losses, the tenacity and resilience of the New Zealand soldiers, supported by the RNZAF’s Helicopter (3) Squadron, allowed us to successfully remove the militia threat.

The New Zealand battalion’s focus then switched to preparing the Timorese to vote in their first elections, on their road to independence on 20 May 2002. The next phase was to support the Timorese build their nation, which would be known as Timor Leste. 

Beginning in late August this year, Kiwi servicemen and women began returning to Timor Leste to attend events commemorating the independence referendum, which took place on August 30, 1999, and the deployment of the International Forces East Timor (INTERFET) on September 20, 1999.

Following his death, the Len Manning Trust was established to provide opportunities for young Timorese to attend vocational training in the Don Bosco Technical Training Centre in Baucau, in the east of Timor Leste.

In 2011, I returned as the United Nations Mission in Timor Leste Chief Military Observer, and we started supporting another vocational training centre in Salele, Cova Lima, where the New Zealand Battalions had served. Using the Len Manning Trust to fund students, we have also been supported by the New Zealand Ambassador to provide much needed equipment to assist students training in carpentry, electricity, hospitality, welding and agriculture. 

Now, with the imminent opening of the new Same English Language School, New Zealand’s legacy of ongoing support for East Timor enters another phase.  

Our work is, indeed, not over.

Views expressed in this article are personal to the author. 

- Asia Media Centre