After 1974

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On 25th April 1974 the Portuguese armed forces - radicalized by the experience of fighting liberation movements in Portugal's African colonies - overthrew the dictatorship and set in motion a decolonization process in East Timor. Political organizations in East Timor were able to come out into the open although the special laws prevailing in East Timor meant that they avoided using the word "party", choosing instead the words "union", "association" or "front".

On 11th May 1974, the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT1) was the first political party to be formed. It was followed on 20th May by the Timorese Social Democratic Association (ASDT2), which became the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN3) in September 1974. The third organisation was the Association for the Integration of Timor into Indonesia (APODETI4). It later changed its name to the electorally acceptable Timorese Popular Democratic Association (also shortened to APODETI) but it retained very little support in East Timor.

Fretilin and UDT were the two leading political parties. Both argued for an independent East Timor, with the former promoting rapid independence and the latter promoting gradual independence. Fretilin also sought to pursue land reform, administrative reform, popular education and the development of small industries based on primary products such as coffee. Although no elections had been held, Fretilin asserted that it was the East Timorese peoples' "sole legitimate representative."5 Such rhetoric increased its differences with UDT, which was dominated by conservative land-owning families and therefore already opposed to Fretilin's land reform program. The political inexperience of all the leaders, itself the result of years of living under Portuguese authoritarianism, was seen in their verbal and sometimes physical attacks on one another in the political contest that followed. Their political inexperience was manipulated by neighboring Indonesia, whose intelligence services had been carrying out covert operations inside East Timor with the aim of eventual annexation.

An independent East Timor that pursued land reform, public education and democratic processes would have provided the Indonesian public with a successful example of a democratic alternative in the middle of the Indonesian archipelago. This was intolerable to the Suharto regime, which practiced political exclusion and popular disenfranchisement. Australian policymakers understood the Indonesian regime's concern. Michael Curtin, Head of the Indonesia Section at Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs, acknowledged this frankly when he wrote:

"If an independent and politically radicalized East Timor were to make a go of it, with political and economic help not to Indonesia's liking, it would certainly become something for discontented Indonesians to look to."6

Indonesia used anti-Communist pretexts to justify its opposition to an independent East Timor. It claimed (falsely) that communists from China were attempting to enter East Timor, that Vietnam might send troops to East Timor, that East Timor would give the Soviet Union a naval base that would divide Indonesian waters into two zones and other (equally false) Cold War-inspired claims. The real issue was that the threat of a democratic alternative to the New Order dictatorship might have inspired other Indonesians.7

Indonesia stepped up its intelligence gathering efforts in East Timor soon after April 1974. It enabled an Apodeti representative, Tomas Goncalves, to visit Indonesia's military chief, General Maradean Panggabean, in Jakarta in September 1974. Soon after, Indonesian special forces began training Apodeti personnel in West Timor as part of a destabilization campaign known as Operation Komodo. This operation also involved inflammatory radio broadcasts alleging that Portugal was about to withdraw and that Vietnamese and Chinese communists were involved in East Timor. Similar stories were planted in the Indonesian and foreign media. By early 1975, however, Indonesian strategists realized that they could not acquire the territory through these methods. They therefore began to plan for a military takeover.

More than a year before Indonesia's invasion, Bill Pritchett, a senior official in the Department of Defence, argued that Australia should support self-determination for East Timor despite Indonesia's objections. Rather than rely on an idealistic notion of having to defend the rights of the East Timorese, he took a realistic position, namely that it would not be possible to conceal Indonesian military brutalities from the Australian public, nor to conduct a good working relationship with Indonesia in the face of sustained public condemnation. DFAT should grasp the nettle, he argued.

Pritchett offered the following suggestions:

  1. Encourage a decolonisation process under UN auspices to internationalise the issue.
  2. Insist on the inclusion of FRETILIN, UDT and APODETI in any decolonisation process.
  3. Encourage an internationally supervised referendum on independence.
  4. Ensure that East Timor entered into a security treaty with Indonesia (and/or Australia), thus quelling Indonesian concerns about instability.

His advice was ignored in favour of a supposedly pragmatic, hard-headed and tough-minded strategy of better relations with the Indonesian military. But Australian diplomats were thoroughly compromised by Indonesia's strategists, who made a mockery of their supposed expertise in foreign policy. They were given confidential briefings about Indonesian military plans, such that every briefing made them more and more compromised:

As the advance notification was steadily fed to Canberra, day by day, and no objection was raised, it would have become harder and harder for Canberra to call a halt or make any protest. In effect, the steady flow of information created a form of blackmail: an objection at any point raised the threat of previous compliance being revealed.8

Indeed, the only people they were tough-minded towards were the families of the victims, not their Indonesian counterparts.

1 Uniao Democratica Timorense.

2 Associacao Social Democratica Timorense.

3 Frente Revolucionaria do Timor-Leste Independente.

4 Associacao para Integracao de Timor na Indonesia.

5 CAVR 2005, Final Report, Part 3 - The History of the Conflict, p 27.

6 W. Way 2000 (ed), Australia and the Indonesian Incorporation of Portuguese Timor, 1974-76, Melbourne University Publishing.

7 In the late 1980s, Indonesians interested in alternative education, health and cooperatives had their interest sparked in East Timor when they learned that Fretilin had similar interests in 1975. These Indonesians became the core of the pro-democracy movement against the Suharto regime, and supported the cause of East Timor after the Santa Cruz massacre of 1991.

8 D. Ball and H. McDonald 2000, Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra, Allen and Unwin, p 67.