Companion to East Timor - Invasion and Conventional War

Invasion and Conventional War

Path-breaking early scholarship by Carmel Budiardjo1, Liem Soei Liong1, John Taylor2, and James Dunn3 has shed considerable light on aspects of the conventional war. Dunn's pioneering inquiries soon after the invasion revealed the conduct of the Indonesian military in the early period. East Timor's Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR) allowed the experiences of many survivors to be recorded. However, until a detailed military history of the war is written, I will touch only briefly here on some aspects of the conventional war, which began with the invasion of Dili on 7 December 1975 and ended on 26 March 1979, when the Indonesian military terminated its conventional operations and declared that East Timor had been pacified.

At 2 a.m. on 7 December 1975, several Indonesian warships were seen off the coast of Dili. Fretilin shut off Dili's power supply at 3 a.m., leaving the city in darkness. Contrary to their orders, some Indonesian warships opened fire immediately, losing the element of surprise. All warships were then ordered to open fire. Indonesian marines landed in the western area of Dili at about 4.30 a.m., securing the area by 7 a.m. Naval vessels then fired on and killed several marines, assuming that they were Fretilin defenders. Nine Hercules aircraft began dropping parachutists over Dili at 6 a.m. Some landed in the sea and drowned, some came under enemy fire, and some came under fire from confused Indonesian troops when they landed. Nevertheless, Indonesian forces secured the centre of Dili by noon on the first day. A marine landing team conducted an amphibious tactical assault on Baucau at 6 a.m. on 10 December. The Baucau landings suffered from poor reconnaissance of suitable landing beaches and minimal information about sea conditions in the area.

Although Indonesian forces enjoyed overwhelming military superiority and controlled the main towns, Fretilin had managed to hold them to a military stalemate by the end of 1976. Fretilin was able to organize a functioning society in the mountains. It could provide enough food crops and basic health care to the many tens of thousands of civilians who had accompanied them there. But Indonesia obtained sixteen OV-10 (Bronco) aircraft from the US, helping to change the course of the war. The significance of the Bronco was that it could be operated from the most rudimentary airfields, and its slow flying speed meant that it could identify and attack villages more effectively. It had been designed specifically for such operations. With these aircraft, Indonesia attacked Fretilin forces and the East Timorese population with conventional munitions and with Soviet-supplied napalm, known as Opalm.

Fratricidal conflict arose within Fretilin's ranks as a result of disagreements about the presence of civilians. Many fighters who had served in the Portuguese army believed that civilians should surrender rather than stay with the armed resistance in the mountains. Some Fretilin leaders who operated according to a political concept known as 'protracted people's war' took the opposite view, believing that the war was a social and political revolution that could erase classes; it had to involve the people, who might otherwise be forced back into feudal subjugation. These disagreements were never resolved. Rather, they were simply overtaken by the Indonesian military's offensives, which destroyed the liberated zones, where the population lived alongside Fretilin, and the support bases, which surrounded the liberated zones.

The President of Fretilin, Francisco Xavier do Amaral, had taken the view that the presence of the civilian population prevented the resistance from conducting its own operations. But the opposing view
that the population was an essential part of the resistance - prevailed. Fretilin arrested and deposed Mr Xavier do Amaral, imprisoning him until he escaped as a result of an Indonesian operation in 1978. He was captured by the Indonesian military, who made him broadcast appeals to the resistance to surrender, and was later held as a servant in the house of an Indonesian military commander.

Symbolically, the conventional war ended on 31 December 1978 when Fretilin President Nicolau Lobato died in battle.

But operations continued until 26 March 1979, when the Indonesian government declared the territory 'pacified.'

1C. Budiardjo and L.S. Liong, The war against East Timor. (London: Zed Books, 1984).
2J. Taylor, Indonesia's Forgotten War. (London: Zed Books, 1991: 88).
3J. Dunn, East Timor: A Rough Passage to Independence, Longueville Books, Double Bay, 2003.