BY:BRENDAN NICHOLSON, DEFENCE EDITOR From: The Australian May 18, 2012 12:00AM - ON the night before the Australian-led intervention force sailed for East Timor in September 1999, John Howard was full of anxiety that something could go badly wrong and the Diggers could be ambushed.
The former prime minister told The Australian how he and his wife,
Janette, walked through the grounds of Townsville's Lavarack Barracks
on the night of September 19, 1999, on the eve of the operation that
led to the tiny nation's independence in May 2002, 10 years ago this weekend.
That peacekeeping operation is credited with saving thousands of
pro-independence East Timorese from death at the hands of militia
groups believed to have been backed by elements of the Indonesian
army, the TNI.
The Howards were on their way to dinner with some of the Diggers who
were to leave for East Timor the following morning.
"I was very anxious," Mr Howard said. "We weren't to know when those
troops went in that there mightn't be an ambush from rogue elements
of the militia and a blind eye being turned by the TNI, as had happened before.
"That was the great worry we had. You could have had an exchange that
could have left a lot of Australian soldiers dead or wounded. I was
concerned that there could be an irregular, unorchestrated attack by
rogue elements of the militia.
"I thought that was a real possibility and once something like that
happens it can escalate. Once people started shooting it could career
out of control. Fortunately that didn't occur."
The night in Townsville was balmy, Mr Howard said. "We could see the
groups of soldiers with their NCOs just quietly talking. Janette and
I looked at them and thought, 'Gee, this is quite a moment for them'.
"For a lot of them this was the first time there could be action that
would involve violence. We felt the seriousness of the moment for
them and for us and for the country."
Mr Howard remembers a feeling of apprehension.
"People thought it was right. People were behind us, very strongly
behind us, but they worried because it was a big commitment," he said.
He knew the intervention would strain the relationship with Jakarta.
"But that was a price worth paying to achieve an outcome that was
fairer and just and an outcome that, deep down, different sections of
the Australian community wanted," he said.
The relationship was repaired during the presidency of Susilo Bambang
Yudhoyono, he said.
If Australia had not acted, it would have been seen as an idle,
indifferent party in the region, Mr Howard said, adding that the UN
might have struggled to get a credible peacekeeping force.
Then there would almost certainly have been a bloodbath. "The rogue
elements would have said no one's going to intervene to help these
people and we'll teach them a lesson."