Eyewitness: Apec 1999 and the crisis in East Timor

From Eyewitness, 7:00 am on 12 March 2020

It was called “the single greatest terrorism opportunity in New Zealand history”.

Others called it a toothless, irrelevant has-been.

But APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, was about to play an unexpected role in an international humanitarian crisis. New Zealand was where it all happened.

This is the story of APEC in Auckland - how a free trade talkfest helped save a nation from destruction.

Timor Leste celebrates two independence days. Here flags fly to mark the 1975 proclamation of independence from Portugal. Indoenisa invaded nine days later.

Timor Leste celebrates two independence days. Here flags fly to mark the 1975 proclamation of independence from Portugal. Indoenisa invaded nine days later. Photo: RNZ Pacific/Sally Round

Timor Leste or East Timor, has had a hard history. Colonised by the Portuguese in the 16th century, this small south east Asian nation declared freedom from colonial rule on 28 November 1975.

Nine days later, neighbouring Indonesia invaded. The Timorese fought back. An estimated 100,000 people were killed in that first year. The next two decades of occupation would see massacres, torture, executions, sexual assaults and starvation as a result of famine.

But the Timorese never stopped fighting for their freedom and by early 1999 the situation was primed for change.

Indonesia’s economy, which had been hit hard by the 1997 Asian financial crisis, was being bailed out by the International Monetary Fund. 

Global sentiment had begun to turn against the occupation. Indonesia's new President B. J. Habibie announced a referendum on the future of East Timor with a choice between autonomy within Indonesia or independence.

The referendum would take place at the end of August 1999. Habibie allowed the United Nations to administer it but he wouldn’t let foreign peacekeepers be present but despite the threat from armed pro-Indonesian militia groups within East Timor. This would be an insult to the Indonesian army, said Habibie.

East Timorese in their thousands turned out to vote on 30 August 1999 despite the militias threatening “a sea of fire” if they chose independence. On 4 September the result was in. 75% had voted for freedom.

The sea of fire swept in.

Journalists on the ground reported people being round up by militia members and gunned down in the streets. Thousands more were herded on to trucks and driven over the border into West Timor. Neither the police nor the Indonesian army did anything to stop the militias. RNZ’s Geoff Robinson described the violence as “a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the region.” President Habibie said the reports were lies and fantasies.

Leaders and activists around the world demanded an international peacekeeping force be allowed in to protect the East Timorese people. But this could only happen if Indonesia (and their army) agreed.

Habibie said no. The killing and kidnappings continued.

The 1999 APEC forum to be held in Auckland was just days away. Indonesia would be attending. Here was an opportunity to intervene.

But there was a problem; APEC isn’t about foreign policy or humanitarian crises. The rules governing what can and cannot be discussed there are strict.

"It is to be economically focused," agrees Dame Jenny Shipley who in 1999, was Prime Minister of New Zealand and host of that year’s APEC forum. "You only get the leaders of economies to come if they know that their foreign policy won't be subjected to scrutiny or interfered with.

Dame Jenny Shipley

Dame Jenny Shipley Photo: RNZ

"But having said that, the power of APEC, where you've got leaders and foreign ministers together physically in a country was always potentially going to be useful."

And so it proved. Shipley and leaders from all the other APEC nations got on the phone to make something happen. Shipley argues that this is where the worth of APEC lies; leaders meeting face to face, getting on with each other and building a sense of agreement and cooperation.

It was decided that an emergency meeting of foreign ministers would take place in Auckland on Thursday 9 September before APEC began. Don McKinnon, New Zealand’s foreign minister, would chair. Shipley had the task of ringing B. J. Habibie to let him know. 

"Well, it was a difficult telephone call, " says Shipley, dryly. "I had a number of officials in the room with me and I held the phone out and one stage where I was being yelled at.

"But the thing that had changed was that not only Western-aligned economies within APEC but also Singapore and others in the region felt that this was thing that had to be progressed.

"And that made a difference."

But not immediately. Despite pressure from 20 different nations, the Indonesian Foreign Minister refused to budge. Don McKinnon emerged from the meeting saying the issue was bigger than APEC.

But the phone calls didn’t stop. Neither did the meetings in hallways between delegates and agreement between them emerged.

“There was a deep consensus across this broad group and many of those leaders had spoken about this issue prior to that meeting actually occurring,” says Shipley.

“So it was a heaping of pressure that this can’t continue.”

Jenny Shipley with Bill Clinton at the APEC state dinner in 1999.

Bill Clinton & Jenny Shipley, APEC state dinner 1999 Photo: Supplied

Australian Prime Minister John Howard lobbied a reluctant Bill Clinton. Clinton talked to the Indonesians.  And on September 12 1999 he made his move.

The United States, he announced, would no longer support the IMF bailout of Indonesia unless their army withdrew and allowed peacekeepers in.

Indonesia caved within hours and agreed to everything. An Australian-led peacekeeping force left for East Timor just eight days later with a battalion of Kiwi troops - our biggest deployment since the Korean War. Jenny Shipley was there to see them off.

“No Prime Minister does that lightly. I remember meeting those families and their children and watching them farewell each other and having a deep sense of responsibility.

“I was very proud of them.”

Timor Leste flag

Photo: WikiCommons

By 2002 the violence in East Timor was largely over. An estimated 1400 people had been killed and 300,000 forced over the border into Indonesian West Timor.

New Zealand troops stayed for another year and when violence broke out again in 2006, a second deployment took place. Over 4000 of our defence force personnel served in East Timor. Five died there.

East Timor is now the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste. The country has its problems but their future belongs to them.

Aerial view of the roof of the International Convention Centre fire near SkyCity.

Aerial view of the roof of the International Convention Centre fire near SkyCity. Photo: Twitter/Phil Goff

APEC will be back in Auckland in 2021. It was meant to be held at Sky City's International Convention Centre but a fire there in 2019 means that won’t happen. An expected 10,000 delegates and media will have to find another place to meet.

21 years ago, Auckland’s first APEC was the place where the right people met at the right time and in the end, an unambiguous, non-partisan good emerged.

“I can tell you that the informal engagement of solving problems, prompting, facilitating, sympathising, encouraging…I watched all sorts of conversations going on (at) the sides of APEC, " says Shipley.

“I’m a strong supporter of getting the right people in the room to do the business.”

Jenny Shipley recalls APEC 1999 as an extraordinary time.

"I still feel exhausted thinking about it."

She’s proud of what the international community achieved together.

"They were big days".

This episode of Eyewitness was made using audio from Nga Taonga Sound and Vision.

 Logo of Nga Taonga Sound & Vision

Photo: Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision