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Thank you Commander Houlihan for that warm introduction, and for that welcome to us all. Thank you, most sincerely, to the wonderful crew of HMAS Choules for hosting us all here this evening. They’ve done an amazing job and we’re very grateful - so thank you.
I would like to extend a special welcome to my counterpart, the Minister for Defence for Timor Leste, His Excellency Brigadier General Filomeno da Paixo; the Vice Chief of the F-FDTL, His Excellency Brigadier General Falur Rate Laek; my New Zealand counterpart the Honourable Ron Mark; General Sir Peter and Lady Cosgrove; and most of all, I want to welcome all INTERFET veterans and serving personnel here today. You are our very special guests here tonight.
Service men and women of the ADF, the AFP, the F-FDTL, INTERFET veterans and members of other mandated UN missions from across the world and distinguished guests – thank you most sincerely for joining us here tonight.
Twenty years ago today, the Australian-led INTERFET coalition arrived in Timor-Leste, under the command of General Sir Peter Cosgrove. Its mission was to restore peace and security following the violence that erupted in the wake of the 30 August popular consultation on the question of Timor-Leste’s independence. Through INTERFET, Australia and all international partners from over 22 nations worked alongside the people of Timor-Leste to emerge to independence from the wreckage of conflict and poverty.
At its peak, INTERFET brought together over 11,500 personnel from around the globe. Forces from Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, Fiji, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Malaysia, Norway, Philippines, Portugal, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States. It gives me a sense of great joy, and reassurance, to mention each and every one of these nations – it was international collaboration at its best, countries working side by side to nurture and guide a young nation, and to bring stability from very fragile beginnings. Now, twenty years later it is clear this mission was one of the most successful. All countries, and all veterans, should feel proud of your efforts.
For Australia, our contribution of over 5,500 personnel, the largest single Australian deployment since the Second World War, and certainly a first for an Australian-led 22-nation coalition. The complexities of the mission were matched by the professionalism, intelligence and commitment of the INTERFET forces who handled their responsibilities with finesse, with respect and with restraint. As Australia’s Minister for Defence, I am immensely proud of the key role the Australian Defence Force played in the early days of this extraordinary young nation. In the words of General Sir Peter Cosgrove: “we were good, and we were lucky.” Sir Peter said this morning that the members of INTERFET came to Timor Leste and saw not just the suffering of the people, but also their courage – the deployed were inspired by the nation, the people they came to help.
Today, I am delighted that so many ADF members and veterans who served in INTERFET have returned to Timor Leste 20 years later to commemorate this historic mission. While profoundly rewarding, it was very tough too, and I know that for many of you, your memories, and lives, still carry a burden today. Thank you for being here then, and for being here now.
These commemorations are as much about what the INTERFET mission enabled for Timor Leste, as the mission itself. Earlier today former President Ramos-Horta hosted a wonderful Friendship lunch where there were tears, but also great joy and much dancing, including from the Ministers. He spoke about everyone in the room being part of an extended family. An extended family that worked together to bring peace to Timor Leste, and an extended family that has since worked hard on reconciliation and forgiveness to allow Timor Leste to build a future for itself. These commemorations provide an important opportunity to reflect on the remarkable progress this country has made as a proud sovereign nation.
Today, Timor Leste is a proud nation with a vibrant democracy, strong institutions, and a resilient population that is united in its commitment to the nation’s economic, security, social and cultural development. Over the last 20 years, Australia has worked together with Timor Leste to deepen our security cooperation, remembering that our military cooperation goes back much further than INTERFET, back to the battle fields of World War Two. Timorese forces risked their lives for Australian forces in the bloody guerrilla campaign of 1941 – our people fought, lived and died together. This was the beginning of a long history of cooperation, of warmth and mutual respect between our two nations. Today, Australia and Timor Leste are still working side-by-side to support regional security and stability, in the areas of maritime security, peacekeeping, infrastructure and training.
Yesterday, I was pleased to talk with Minister Filomeno and General Lere about how we can continue to advance our defence cooperation for the next twenty years. Ladies and gentlemen, as we commemorate the INTERFET mission, we also celebrate its achievements, your achievements, and the deep bonds forged between individuals and nations.
INTERFET was all about peace, dignity, strength, hope and most of all, it was about freedom. Thank you for gathering tonight to honour the very special history, relationship and future shared by Timor-Leste, Australia and all INTERFET nations. We are at once neighbours, friends and partners.
And thank you to all current and former serving members and veterans, together with police force members and civilians. I also particularly want to thank your families, because without the support and the love of your families when you served here and the many years since then, your service to our nation – to the independence of Timor Leste – would simply not have been possible.
So viva INTERFET .
Viva Timor Leste.
Obrigada barak. Thank you.