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Duty In East Timor - Anderton Speech

Hon Jim Anderton Speech notes
Duty In East Timor
1 pm
10 May 2001
Seven Medals presented to Customs staff who served in East Timor
Centra Hotel
Auckland Airport

Welcome to you all.

On behalf of the government and the people of New Zealand, I pay tribute to our Customs staff who served the international community and the people of East Timor.

One test of international citizenship is how we respond to calls for help, especially from within our region, and especially when we are called by the whole international community. That call came first in 1974 when the Indonesians invaded East Timor. But it came loudest in 1999.

New Zealand answered that last call – it came, you may remember, in dramatic circumstances.
The people of East Timor had been given the choice of independence or autonomy within Indonesia, in a United Nations conducted referendum. Their vote was a massive 80% for independence, in the face of sustained and brutal intimidation to prevent that vote, by militia forces trained, armed and directed by the Indonesian army.

Those militia forces responded to that brave vote, with a campaign of destruction from which no-one in East Timor escaped. The infrastructure was destroyed. Towns and villages burnt. All shops, homes and government buildings looted. Some 70% of the population were driven from their homes. An unknown number were raped or killed. Hundreds of thousands were deeply traumatised.

In September 1999, the United Nations called for help – not only to save UN personnel trapped in Dili, but on behalf of the people who had made their historic choice for self-determination. New Zealand responded – we sent our biggest troop deployment since Korea.
Whatever the criticism of recent decisions on defence spending, the simple truth is that we responded - when we were called, and when it counted. And we will be there or elsewhere as peacekeepers in future. Better equipped for the job too.

At the end of 1999 came another call from the United Nations – this time for help in establishing a Border Control Service. The airport was about to be opened, there was no civilian border security. A service had to be started from scratch, literally. Could we help? Immediately?

Actually, my staff and I had a role in that process. Some of you here will know that the first phone call came to Andrew Ladley, who had himself just returned from the UN operation in East Timor to help in our coalition negotiations in setting up this government – who now happens to be my Chief of Staff. Andrew asks that I give you his personal greetings and congratulations on this occasion.

Many of you here will know what happened next. Andrew spoke to me. I said to take it up with the Ministers of Customs and Foreign Affairs, they approved. The call went out through your networks including that larger-than-life network called Paul Campbell - dozens of people volunteered, within days this was in motion, within 3 weeks there were 5 NZ Customs officers in Dili.

The speed of that response is itself is an extraordinary tribute to our Customs Service.

When you arrived, Andrew had somehow extracted himself from government here, and was back in Dili himself - determined to catch fish, I believe. I gather he met you off the plane. One of those officers (Keely Chitty) was awarded the East Timor medal (along with Andrew), in the first ceremony presided over by the Prime Minister. The others are either here or represented here today, with some of their colleagues who followed them into East Timor.

That first contingent will remember the scene of their arrival – it was, I gather, out of a war movie – an airport with military helicopters and traffic, soldiers everywhere, the destruction, UN vehicles, burnt buildings. Those first impressions will be vividly stamped on your minds. You will also remember the scale of what your tasks were.

I am told that the first orders you received were what must surely be the briefest customs and immigration powers in history: you were to protect the "public good" in East Timor by establishing border control, stopping such people or materials entering, as you deemed contrary to the public good. Amazing. Thank goodness for kiwi ingenuity.

Your second orders were equally brief and challenging: you were to work with the United National Transitional Authority in East Timor in establishing a Border Service staffed by East Timorese, and trained by yourselves.

You were, in my view, privileged to be given such extraordinary responsibilities. And East Timor was privileged, by all accounts, to have your service.

That first team was followed by others who continued to operate and train the Border Service. Team leader Garth Russell, and officers Julie Leaf and Trevor Cleave are here today. You all faced amazing challenges. No doubt, each of you has been affected profoundly by your experiences, just as you have helped shape East Timor. To build something from nothing does not happen often in life. You have helped do just that, each one of you.

Today, the East Timor Border Service remains the most advanced of all the government departments in the Administration – and certainly the only one contributing substantially to the income of the new country. East Timor's struggle to survive as a nation is only just beginning.

But you all helped in that basic act of nation-building: securing border control.

Andrew jokingly remarks that you all apparently survived Ross, and that itself deserves a medal (you had to have been there to understand that comment, I gather).
But in truth, you all did your country proud. You did the Customs Service proud. East Timor, and indeed the United Nations, is profoundly grateful for your service.

Today we recognise that service by the presentation of the East Timor Medal to 7 of the 17 New Zealand Customs staff who went to East Timor as part of our commitment to UNTAET. Six officers are here today. Tricia Wihongi was the Team Leader in that first group and she is overseas.

Andrew tells me that although Tricia couldn't fish very well (but neither could he, he admits), she was nevertheless pretty damn good as a customs officer, leader, and trainer. Her father Pat Wihongi is here to receive her medal on her behalf. We thank him for her leadership and professionalism.

In going to East Timor, you left your families and your homes – although Kelly Chitty somehow smuggled her man along with her. Her husband Craig (receiving a medal today), was not, I am told, the team leader in early morning running. But otherwise kept the group in good humour. The fishing medal was apparently claimed by Lloyd Smith, unless I am mistaken. And the running medal by Mike Dale.

But jokes aside, all of you left loved ones behind, and in recognising your service, we recognise those loved ones too.

I am honoured to present these medals today.

ends

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