UN Peacekeeping Force: Catalyst for Timor-Leste's Independence




President Jose Ramos Horta of Timor Leste conducted an official visit to the Philippines from Nov. 9 to 11, 2023. I had the privilege and opportunity to engage with him during the luncheon hosted by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. at Malacañang Palace. President Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, stands among the distinguished individuals, including Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, who ardently advocated for the attainment of freedom and independence for their nation.

The nation underwent a political and social transformation, necessitating the intervention of the United Nations. Following consultations with Indonesia and Portugal, an election was conducted to determine the destiny of the nation. The majority of East Timorese expressed a preference for independence, while a minority, advocating integration with Indonesia, received support from militias organized by the Indonesian military, resulting in terror and violence. Numerous lives were lost, and approximately half a million people were displaced, creating a tumultuous and critical situation. It was in response to this crisis that the United Nations intervened, deploying a 24-nation multinational peacekeeping force in 1999. In retrospect, this singular event profoundly shaped the establishment of a new nation. Subsequently, a Filipino general assumed leadership of the peacekeeping force, representing the contributions of 24 nations to the mission.

The military segment of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) comprised approximately 10,000 troops and up to 200 military observers. This segment was tasked with ensuring security at a level commensurate with the necessary military capabilities, responding effectively to all security challenges. Its structure was designed to furnish a credible military force capable of employing any necessary measures to uphold peace and stability within the territory.

The Philippine contingent contributed a battalion comprising 800 soldiers and military observers. Commanding a peacekeeping force transcends conventional or civilian paradigms. This contingent maintained a well-trained and cohesive military structure capable of fulfilling its mission in accordance with UN Resolution. Strategic measures were undertaken to disarm and demobilize militia groups, projected by the Indonesian Army to thwart, and undermine the people's initiative towards independence.  This process gave rise to humanitarian concerns, impacting the return of internally displaced persons who had sought refuge in West Timor. Military observers diligently monitored and reported their movements, ensuring their safe return. The procedural execution of cantonment, disarmament, and demobilization of armed groups effectively neutralized existing and potential threats. The ultimate objective of a peacekeeping mission was the reinstatement of relative peace, facilitating the populace in restoring and rebuilding their normal lives. The mission further facilitated the civilian pillar in instilling a culture of sustaibility, recognizing the transient nature of the peacekeeping presence. Peacekeeping operations align with democratic principles, emphasizing the subordination of the military pillar to civilian authority.

Numerous exceptional factors distinguish a peacekeeping mission. Due to its composition — comprising countries with varying degrees of political and economic development — coupled with language barriers and disparate doctrines, considerations were made to reconcile differences and diversities. These parameters played a pivotal role in contributing to a balanced and flexible approach, ensuring the maintenance of operational effectiveness and efficiency.

To uphold the utmost level of security, the force functioned with a well-balanced combat capability, complemented by the UN Military Observers Group, which furnished specialized observer and liaison functions.

The exercise of leadership necessitated innovative approaches. Recognizing the significance of culture is crucial as it fosters an understanding and appreciation of variations in human behavior. The Force Commander, through respect for diverse beliefs and practices, successfully unified the coalition, shaping it into an effective and efficient force. Similarly, there was a high regard for the norms and cultures of the Timorese people. Moral and ethical leadership, which was strongly emphasized, became a standard rather than an anomaly. This approach offered the Force Commander a clearer direction and a rational vision that revitalized the force.

It has been 21 years since Timor-Leste achieved independence. As a nascent nation, it holds significant potential for advancement and prosperity. The pivotal moment in its history was the unwavering determination displayed in asserting its rights and sovereignty against more powerful nations. Through this struggle, the people of Timor-Leste have cultivated a profound sense of patriotism and nationalism, fostering pride in their heritage and identity. The involvement of a UN Peacekeeping Force played a crucial role in facilitating the realization of its independence. During a luncheon at Malacañang, I encountered DFA Secretary Manalo, who remarked that “The UN East Timor Mission” stood as a singular accomplishment where the Philippines played a major role. It showcased the professionalism of the Filipino soldier.

Upon reflection, the severity of the crisis elicited exemplary leadership from President Horta and Prime Minister Gusmao. The peacekeeping efforts constituted a carefully measured approach that facilitated the restoration of normalcy. It was truly an honor to have participated in that collaborative effort. Additionally, tribute is extended to the late UN SRSG Sergio Vieira de Mello, a distinguished diplomat and administrator of the highest caliber.

(Lt. Gen. Jaime S. de los Santos served with distinction as a military professional, 42nd Commanding Gen. Philippine Army, 1st Force Commander, UN Multi-National Peacekeeping Force in East Timor, former member, UP Board of Regents and Professorial Lecturer II (part-time), UP-Diliman.)