Companion to East Timor - East Timor's Isolation

East Timor's Isolation

East Timor remained extremely isolated from the neighbouring islands. A visitor in January 1974 who wanted to telephone Kupang from Dili recalled that 'the call had to be booked more than a day in advance, one had to wait hours at the telephone office, and when connected it went through Macau, Mozambique, Lisbon, Holland (or somewhere in Europe), Canada, across the Pacific to somewhere in Asia, Jakarta and Kupang. The quality was terrible and one had to shout oneself hoarse. It was horribly expensive as well.' Later, an 800-line automatic telephone exchange was installed in Dili, as well as a direct telephone link between Dili and Kupang (in Indonesian Timor). Dili's radio transmitter was upgraded so that it could broadcast to the whole of East Timor.

With the exception of its conscripts who were posted there on temporary rotation, most people in Portugal knew little about East Timor, and almost nothing about the East Timorese. Portuguese children would learn in school that East Timor's mountains were higher than those found in the highest mountain range in Portugal, the Serra da Estrela. (East Timorese students studied the history and geography of Portugal, and were proud that they, not the Portuguese, had the highest mountains in the Portuguese Empire). In neighboring Australia, few people had heard about East Timor.


Australian university students published a report about it in the union newspaper in 1968, but otherwise paid it little attention. Portugal's more distant colonies in Africa were better known; student activists in Australia had connections with church activists in the anti-apartheid movement. They had therefore heard of the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) in Mozambique and the Partido Africano de Independencia da Guine e Cabo Verde (PAIGC) in Guinea-Bissau, but East Timor rarely featured in their discussions, if ever. Among the few Australians who did know about East Timor were former soldiers of the 2nd/2nd Independent Company and the 2nd/4th Independent Company, who had seen action there during World War II.

The Australian government was disengaging from the territory; it shut down the Australian Consulate in Dili in 1971 because 'the benefits accruing from representation' did not 'justify a large capital outlay and the continuing expenditure of funds and personnel.' Its main interest was in its negotiations with Portugal over the petroleum resources in the Timor Sea. Australia and Indonesia had negotiated a maritime boundary in 1972 based on a natural prolongation of the continental shelf. This had set the boundary much closer to Indonesia than to Australia, giving Australia the lion's share of any resources. Indonesia soon realized it had made excessively generous concessions. Five years later, its foreign minister Mochtar Kusumaatmadja told Australia's ambassador to Jakarta that Australia had 'taken Indonesia to the cleaners.' Portugal had not been a party to these negotiations. It preferred to wait, knowing that the negotiating texts of the UN Third Conference on the Law of the Sea were moving away from the continental shelf principle. The maritime boundary was therefore incomplete, resulting in what was known as the Timor Gap.