Peacekeeping operations came close to home when New Zealand Defence Force troops were sent to the island of Bougainville in 1997. Between 1989 and 1997 conflict between secessionist groups and the Papua New Guinea government left thousands dead and tens of thousands of people homeless on Bougainville.
Peacekeeping the Pacific way
New Zealand’s peacekeeping in the Pacific was marked by its mix of Māori and Pākehā customs. Māori protocol was used in negotiations, Māori and Pacific Island troops played an important role in the missions, and the haka (traditional dance) proved to be an important tool for peacekeepers in Bougainville.
New Zealand engaged in numerous peacemaking attempts. After a number of failures, the Burnham Truce agreement was signed. It called for the deployment of a Truce Monitoring Group (TMG) and, from December 1997 until April 1998, a 250-person New Zealand-led group was deployed to Bougainville. The TMG was made up of New Zealand soldiers, as well as Australian, Fijian and ni-Vanuatu civilian and military personnel. The force was unarmed and its task was to patrol, monitor the truce and build confidence in the peace process.
In 1998 the TMG was replaced by the Australian-led Peace Monitoring Group, which oversaw the collection and containment of weapons used in the fighting and a referendum on the future of the island.
In September 1999 violence erupted in East Timor after an overwhelming majority of its people voted in favour of independence from Indonesia in a United Nations (UN) referendum. Pro-Indonesian militias wreaked havoc when the result became known, and more than a thousand people were killed.
The violence prompted an international outcry and the UN called for a multinational force to restore order and provide humanitarian assistance until a UN peacekeeping force could be organised. The resulting International Force East Timor (INTERFET) was led by Australia, with more than 5,000 Australian defence personnel involved. New Zealand was the second largest contributor, dispatching a battalion of light infantry troops, transport aircraft, helicopters and three navy ships. By October 1999 more than 1,100 New Zealanders were in East Timor, making it the country’s largest military deployment since the Korean War.
Killed in action
After initially deploying troops to Dili, New Zealand forces were based at Suai and took responsibility for patrolling the dangerous southern part of the border with Indonesia. Patrols came into contact with pro-Indonesian militias a number of times and during one incident, in July 2000, a New Zealand soldier was shot and killed – New Zealand’s first combat fatality since the Vietnam War. In total, five New Zealand peacekeepers died in East Timor.
The final New Zealand Defence Force battalion was withdrawn in November 2002, although the situation in the country remained unstable. In 2006 Prime Minister Helen Clark sent troops and military aircraft back to East Timor after riots erupted in Dili. In 2011 the New Zealand Defence Force still had 79 troops in East Timor.