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Welcome Home from Timor Parade - Speech

Hon Mark Burton
08 June 2000
Speech Notes
Palmerston North
Welcome Home from Timor Parade

There are many happy and proud people here today. And rightly so. As Defence Minister I too am immensely proud of the New Zealanders who have served their country with such distinction in East Timor.

For those of you who have returned from East Timor, and who we welcome home officially today, you can all hold your heads high. And for the families of those who served in East Timor, you can rejoice in the safe return of your loved ones, and know that they have played a vital role in protecting the democratic rights of a people who have suffered so much.

I must also once again express my deepest sympathies to the families of Warrant Officer Tony Walser and Staff Sergeant Billy White, the two soldiers who tragically lost their lives in vehicle accidents in East Timor. We feel their loss particularly strongly today. Our thoughts are with their families.

The deployment to East Timor was a major challenge for the New Zealand Defence Force. It was achieved at very short notice. The fact that the deployment was so successful is testament to the professionalism of our military.

Initially deployed to Dili to help secure the city and the surrounding area, by mid-October last year, the 1st Battalion Group had deployed to Suai in the southwest of East Timor. These deployments have been complemented throughout by personnel of 3 Squadron, and supported by Navy vessels and personnel.

The task was to generate and maintain a secure environment. Our forces quickly established a very good rapport with the locals.
I observed this special relationship first hand when I led a parliamentary delegation to East Timor in February. New Zealanders seem to have a natural talent for this kind of peace restoration work, where winning the confidence and trust of the local people is so vital.

Despite everything they had gone through, the East Timorese greeted us with waves and broad smiles. It's now become folklore, but I can assure everyone here today that "Kia Ora Kiwi" was indeed the shouted greeting to our escort by the very first group of Timorese children our delegation encountered on the ground in Suai.

The 1st Battalion Group and 3 Squadron also established excellent working relationships with the other forces that came to serve with the New Zealand command – the Fijians, Canadians, Irish, Nepalese and others. I met with officers from these and other nations while in East Timor. They were unanimous in their praise of the leadership and professionalism displayed by the New Zealand forces.

No one should be in any doubt – this was a very difficult assignment. The Battalion Group's area of operations, appropriately called AO Manawatu, covered an area of 1700 square kilometres. That's an area only slightly smaller than the real Manawatu.

There had been a great deal of militia activity in AO Manawatu prior to the arrival of the New Zealanders. Villages and infrastructure had been heavily damaged, and in some cases, totally destroyed. Many East Timorese were killed. I don't think anyone can fully appreciate the extent of the devastation encountered by our personnel unless they have seen it with their own eyes.

A key task for our troops was to secure the border with West Timor and bring peace to AO Manawatu. Border incursions were kept to a minimum. The militia quickly learnt that the New Zealanders were not to be trifled with. Soon refugees began to return in large numbers and assisting with the provision of humanitarian aid became another role for our forces. Around 30,000 East Timorese were successfully repatriated to the Suai region.

INTERFET's task was to restore order in East Timor. Major General Peter Cosgrove told me personally that the New Zealand forces had been pivotal to the successful achievement of that goal.

INTERFET was able to hand over to United Nations control earlier than planned. In February, the transition to UNTAET was completed. Again, this transition was handled with great proficiency.

It became clear during my visit to East Timor that the planned nine month deployment was going to place considerable strain on the troops, and on their loved ones back home. The length of the tour of duty was an issue raised with me by a number of the New Zealand personnel I met.

I was pleased that we were able to come up with a workable solution to reduce the tour of duty to six months, although I do acknowledge that in practice some of you actually spent closer to nine months away from home.

Responsibility for the southwest border region of East Timor has now been handed over to the Burnham-based 2nd/1st Battalion Group, whom I had the pleasure of farewelling in a parade similar to this in Christchurch last month. This transition and the return home of the 1st Battalion group have been completed with the same professionalism displayed throughout the involvement in East Timor.

I would also like to acknowledge the New Zealand police officers who served in East Timor, and who are part of this welcome home parade today. With thousands of displaced people, a destroyed infrastructure and little or nothing for the local people to do, civil disorder was always going to be a concern.

New Zealand police officers, armed only with their training and courage, did much to prevent the fragile fabric of society in East Timor from tearing apart. Similarly, it is fitting to note the contribution of other New Zealanders, such as customs officers, prison officers and NGO personnel who all continue to help with the long process of building civil society in East Timor.

I also want to express the Government's special appreciation for the personal sacrifices made by the families of those who served in East Timor. Having your sons, husbands, wives and daughters, mums and dads away from home, in a dangerous, remote and unpredictable environment, is never an easy thing to cope with. Thank you, all of you.

Upon his arrival home a couple of weeks ago, Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Burnett was quoted as saying, "I'm coming home pleased with what we have done."

I want to tell Kevin Burnett, all the troops that served with him, members of 3 Squadron and members of the police and other services – the government and the people of New Zealand are immensely pleased, proud and grateful for the work you have all done.

Welcome Home.

ENDS

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