The Road to Balibo

In January 1975, Fretilin and UDT united in what would be a short-lived political coalition. Both parties agreed that East Timor should become independent, and that they would form a transitional government led by members from both parties. However, their mutual suspicion proved to be too strong and their political inexperience meant that they had no mechanisms to deal with their differences. In particular, the UDT was threatened by Fretilin's overwhelming popular support. The two parties continued to attack each other verbally and tensions rose in the districts. Indonesia exploited these tensions, undermining the chances of East Timorese unity by playing off one side against the other. The coalition between the UDT and Fretilin collapsed after four months.

In early August 1975, key UDT figures met Indonesian intelligence chief General Ali Murtopo in Jakarta. They launched a coup against Fretilin on their return. In this so-called "armed movement" of 11th August, UDT captured some key installations and detained hundreds of Fretilin leaders and supporters. Fretilin withdrew to the hills of Aileu, south of Dili, beginning its fightback on 20th August. The Portuguese administration left Dili on 26th August for the island of Atauro and would never return. Some members of the police and some military units supported UDT but most supported Fretilin, which defeated UDT by early September. From this point on, order had been restored and there was no pretext for intervention by Indonesia. Fretilin established an administration, distributed food and continued to recognize Portuguese sovereignty. It ensured that the Portuguese flag flew in the capital and prevented the use of the governor's office there. The Portuguese administration ignored Fretilin's requests to return.
Meanwhile, Indonesia had stepped up its military incursions into the territory in October 1975 in a campaign known as Operation Flamboyan. The Indonesian military seized the village of Batugade on 7th October 1975, triggering an international armed conflict to which the 1949 Geneva Conventions applied. Balibo was attacked on 16th October 1975.

Australian officials were informed in advance of the Indonesian attack on Balibo. Below are excerpts from three now-declassified cables:

  1. "We have received today, 13 October, more details of the Indonesian assistance to anti-Fretilin forces... The main thrust of the operation would begin on 15 October. It would be through Balibo and Maliana/Atsabe. The objective is to complete the main operation by the middle of next month (including the occupation of Dili). It is possible, however, that because of the problem of Indonesia's providing logistical support without being observed and the setting in of the wet season that the task won't be completed until sometime in December. The President in approving the budget had made it clear that 'no Indonesian flag' could ever be used in the operation."1
  2. "President Suharto has recently authorised a significant increase in Indonesian involvement... The stepped-up operation begins today, as you know. Tjan has now given the following additional details about it. All Indonesian forces operating in Portuguese Timor will be dressed as members of the anti-Fretilin force. They have been assembling in Atapupu. Initially an Indonesian force of 800 will advance Batugade-Balibo-Maliana-Atsabe... It is of course clear that the presence of Indonesian forces of this order will become public. The Indonesians acknowledge this. The President's policy will be to deny any reports of the presence of Indonesian forces in Portuguese Timor. We are not in a position to assess the likelihood of success of the Indonesian operation. The Indonesians are confident. They estimate the Fretilin armed force at 5,000 including reservists. If difficulties arise Indonesia will, we assess, escalate its involvement to overcome them? Meanwhile Indonesia will continue to portray its policy in as favourable a light as possible on the diplomatic and public presentational level.

    Foreign Minister Malik's agreement to talk with his Portuguese counterpart is part of the pattern. As seen from Jakarta, we need to address ourselves to the attitude we should adopt as fighting again increases in Portuguese Timor, which it should do from today. On the basis of the Townsville talks, President Suharto will assume that the Australian Government will make every effort to give Indonesia what support and understanding it can. The Prime Minister's statement in the House of Representatives on 26 August confirmed this assumption. An example of the Indonesian Government's confidence ... is the extent to which it keeps us informed of its secret plans. There is no doubt in my mind that the Indonesian government's fundamental assessment is based on the talks between Mr Whitlam and President Suharto in Townsville."2

  3. "I had a long and very frank discussion with General Benny Murdani last evening, 15 October. General Murdani had returned the previous day from a visit to Timor, including Batugade. On the operations which were launched yesterday, 15 October, General Murdani confirmed what Tjan had already told us and which we reported previously. In these circumstances I can only repeat my earlier comments that, in the next few weeks, we are going to need steady nerves and to keep our assessment of our longer term interests in this region in front of us."3

1 Secret Australian Eyes Only Priority cable from Australian embassy Jakarta to Canberra dated 13th October 1975.

2 Secret Australian Eyes Only Priority cable from Australian embassy Jakarta to Canberra dated 15th October 1975.

3 Secret Australian Eyes Only Priority cable from Australian embassy Jakarta to Canberra dated 16th October 1975.