Thursday, March 21, 2013

Ron Smith: Manning an Unfinished Story



The Research Commons at Waikato contains a long review by me of the circumstances which surrounded the death in East Timor (Timor Leste) in 1999 of New Zealand Army Private Leonard Manning (http://researchcommons.waikato.ac.nz/handle/10289/2136#fulltext).  The review was written in 2005, after nearly six years of unsuccessful efforts on my part to find out what had happened and what lessons could be learned.  My earlier accounts, which were published in the New Zealand International Review, laid out the official version of events and raised some questions of my own about events on the day (24 July). I pursued these over the following years, culminating in a series of Official Information Requests, which were all refused and summarily dismissed by the Ombudsman.   There the matter has stood for eight years.
In January of this year, a retired Indonesian general, who served in East Timor at the relevant time (and at the relevant place), published his memoirs (Syahnakri,  Timor Timur – The Untold Story).  Pages 290-294 of this work, which I have in translation from an Australian source, contain an account of the 24 July incident, drawn from interviews with the ‘militia group’ and observations by the general himself.  This is significantly at variance with the New Zealand official account and suggests a need for the two accounts to be reconciled.

The crucial core of the New Zealand official account came to me directly from the (then) NZ Army Land Force Commander, Brigadier Mateparae in a personal briefing in September 2001, a little over a year after Private Manning was shot.  This was supplemented by the release, under the Official Information Act, of a series of interviews with members of Manning’s unit, conducted by Lt Col Harper (presently professor at the Massey University Centre for Defence and Security Studies).  Together these described a patrol of six soldiers lying-up overnight and then, after reports of a ‘threat group’ in the vicinity, ascending a ridge track in thick bush. As they approach the summit, they come under fire from several points and ‘feel vulnerable’, ‘a bit sort of stunned’.  There is little return of fire.  Private Manning is shot early on.  Another patrol member can see Manning down but cannot get close to him.  He withdraws back down the hill.  On joining the rest of the patrol, who have also retreated, he reports that Private Manning is dead.

General Syahnakri’s account of these events is drawn from interviews with the ‘threat group’ (who were, in fact, farmers, who had come across the nearby border to steal cattle).  These persons were subsequently arrested and tried by the Indonesian authorities, which is how their side of the story comes to be known.   The crucial part of the general’s testimony is that the site of the action was, in fact, a Peace-Keeping Force (PKF) observation post and that the party of four* well-armed cattle thieves (led by a pro-integrationist) just happened to be passing when they noticed, ‘that the PKF troops on guard were resting/inattentive ‘– so they resolved to undertake a sudden attack, and a fire-fight ensued’.  (*MFAT representatives who attended the trial speak of 6.)

In the New Zealand account, New Zealand forces return to the site of the action, late in the afternoon of the 24th and are able to confirm that Private Manning is dead and that his machine-gun has been taken.  The insurgents/cattle-rustlers are long gone.  Sometime after this, the Peace-Keeping Force would have undertaken an after-action examination of the site.  In the course of this, they would have noted how many people were involved, where they were situated and what weapons were being used.  They would have picked up cartridge cases and noted how many shots were fired by each participant.  On the basis of this, they would have drawn a diagram (or diagrams) of how the action proceeded, and prepared a formal After Action Report.  Such a report would have been the basis of the sketch (and accompanying details) of an action involving NZ forces in the same area twelve months later, as published in Operation East Timor (John Crawford and Glyn Harper, Reed, 2001).  Interestingly, this same publication gives no such detail for the case in which a New Zealand soldier was actually killed.  Instead, they repeat the official line that the New Zealand patrol was attacked by ‘a large force of militia’.  In fact, as we now know, it was four farmers (or maybe 6), albeit armed and with anti-East Timor independence sentiments.

In my formal request under the Official Information Act, I asked specifically for the After Action Report in relation to the Manning incident and this request was summarily dismissed.  Clearly, the report would enable us to resolve the apparent inconsistencies here.  It would also give us a more accurate account of what really happened and we might learn something of value from that.  Certainly, that was the basis on which I proceeded at the time.  It was hard then (and even harder now) to understand what risk to national security or to the privacy of individuals, might outweigh the benefits of transparency.  We are really only left with protecting persons and their reputations.  The blunt term for this is a cover-up.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

The unavoidable conclusion, from a soldier's point of view, is that the patrol panicked and fled. The minor tactical skill displayed was appalling and indicates the depths to which our proud profession of arms had sunk under just a few years misguided policy direction.

Anonymous said...

Much of what I just read above is incorrect. To the poster above, if you are/were a soldier, you obviously lack any of the loyalty that is normally part of the culture of our armed forces. Secondly, the soldiers involved in this incident on that day were all of the highest calibre and acted entirely appropriately given the amount of fire they recieved and the terrain.

Anonymous said...

They did the job that they were told to do initially, which was to confirm the information provided by a local villager. From there they were ordered to follow up when all the signs indicated a very large well armed force. They were not a fighting force, their numbers were never going to make this this. Their Company commander wanted the glory of finding a militia force, but all the signs indicated that this element was well trained, well equiped and was in a comanding defensive position. Also with some poor decisions through the evening this element was fully are of the UN presence close buy. So they would be heighten and ready.