Companion to East Timor - The Civil War of August 1975

The Civil War of August 1975

The UDT members began their so-called 'armed movement' against Fretilin around midnight on 10 August or very early on 11 August 1975. They captured the police headquarters, along with its Portuguese commander, Lieutenant Colonel Rui Maggiolo Gouveia. They took control of the weapons in the armoury as well as the port, the airport and the radio and telephone facilities in Dili. They detained hundreds of Fretilin activists. At 1 a.m. on 11 August, Joao Carrascalao met Governor Lemos Pires and informed him that the movement aimed to remove communist elements from Fretilin, not to replace the Portuguese administration.

Fretilin withdrew to the hills of Aileu, south of Dili. The Portuguese administration dispatched Rogerio Lobato, the brother of Fretilin leader Nicolau Lobato and one of the highest-ranking East Timorese soldiers in the Portuguese army, to Aileu to talk with the Fretilin leadership. Instead, Rogerio sympathized with Fretilin and went back to Dili where he convinced the majority of East Timorese soldiers in the Portuguese military to join Fretilin. On the night of 15 August, Rogerio received a coded message from the Fretilin Central Committee in Aileu. The message was, A minha mulher já está em Aileu, chegou bem' ('My wife arrived safely in Aileu'). It signaled a General Armed Insurrection against UDT.

That night, 44 Fretilin members took over the Portuguese military barracks in Aileu and detained Portuguese officers and soldiers. They moved to encircle the Portuguese troops in Aileu. At 1 a.m. on 20 August, Rogerio Lobato and Hermenegildo Alves launched Fretilin's armed insurrection by taking control of the army headquarters in Taibessi and disarming and detaining the Portuguese troops who were there. They also captured the UDT vice-president, Cezar Mouzinho and the former Portuguese police chief, Lieutenant Colonel Maggiolo Gouveia, who had by then defected to the UDT side.

Much of the violence was based on long-standing personal grievances that had little to do with the political differences between UDT and Fretilin. As Rogerio Lobato later said, 'I know that sometimes it was because someone had taken someone else's girlfriend and so now he used it as a chance to beat him.' Between 1,500 and 3,000 people are estimated to have been killed during the internal armed conflict, which, although chaotic and violent, was essentially over by 30 August.

The Taiwanese Vice-Consul reported that 'many of the stories published in Jakarta and elsewhere that the civil war involved atrocities and horrors in the streets of Dili were without foundation. Most of the fighting had taken place down the west end of the town near the airport. There was little damage to buildings in the centre of Dili and there was no looting of Chinese-owned shops. Most of the Chinese community had remained in Dili… Fretilin were taking a positive attitude towards the Chinese, saying that they were necessary for the economy.'

The Portuguese governor and his administration had withdrawn to the neighbourhood of Farol, which was recognized by all combatants as a neutral zone, by 18 August. They left for the off-shore island of Atauro on the night of 26 August. Although they would never return to the mainland, they had not in fact left East Timor; Atauro was part of East Timor. Nor had Portugal renounced its sovereignty over East Timor. Its administrative control had been weakened substantially but no other state had established a better legal title. 'Portugal mishandled the decolonisation program' would become a mantra for the pro-fascist apologists in Portugal and for Australian policy-makers and commentators who wanted to deflect Indonesia's culpability.