'Teddies for Timor' was a ill-conceived idea to donate stuffed toys to the children of East Timor (Timor Leste). A UN-sponsored plebiscite for East Timorese independence led to a violent response by integrationists, requiring military intervention by the UN to protect the civilian population, and ensure the sustainability of the nascent East Timorese state. Unfortunately children were caught up in the carnage, triggering a global heartfelt sense of sympathy on the Timorese people, and a desire to do something right.

In Australia, where the troubles next door featured prominently in the news, the public donated generously to various charities, and strongly endorsed the Australian government's decision to send troops to East Timor in November 1999. Several relief agencies, both new and established, collected millions of dollars worth of cash donations from the public.

However in the following month, perhaps the yuletide season or pre-millenial excitement led to the public catching on to one idea propagated by one Commodore Brian Robertson of the Royal Australian Navy. With perhaps less sense than what one might expect from a naval officer, Commodore Robertson instigated 'Operation Teddy' - the planned deployment of love and goodwill to the children of East Timor, in the form of teddy bears donated by Australians. An appeal went out for Australians to donate teddy bears to the children of East Timor, and with much enthusiasm we responded. Thousands of teddy bears were deposited on the doorsteps of several aid organisations which had little knowledge of Commodore Robertson's impromptu gesture, and felt obliged to accept them and send them on to him.

As everybody, from children donating their Christmas presents to prisoners with sewing machines in a New Zealand gaol, had caught onto the act, by late December over 28,000 teddy bears had been donated. Commodore Henderson and another serviceman dressed as Santa Claus had already been distributing teddy bears to baffled children before some aid agencies began to worry about the intention of this scheme.

In Dili, the teddy bears were taking up valuable warehouse space (not to mention valuable container space on the sole ship that plied the Darwin-Dili passage). Not only are soft toys culturally alien to the people of East Timor, but also Christmas is not associated as a day for exchanging gifts. Besides, as some aid agencies noted, in the wet, muddy tropics the stuffing and surface of a teddy bear could easily become unsanitary. The East Timorese leadership requested that no more teddy bears be sent, or for that matter thongs - the Australian Army's own 'Thongs for Timor' appeal was threatening the livelihood of the local footwear industry.

So now the aid agencies had to work out how to dispose of the remaining teddy bears, without risking offending the donor community. While Bishop Belo refused to take possession of the rotting bears, Jose Ramos Horta offered to take responsibility for the displaced bears if nobody else would. He was not given the Nobel Peace Prize for doing nothing. I am unable to establish what was the fate of the remaining teddy bears, except to assume that if the most sensible option was taken they would have ended up on a bonfire. Discreetly.

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