Companion to East Timor - International Solidarity - Phase Two

International Solidarity – Phase Two

Phase Two began as a response to the Indonesian invasion. Although Indonesian forces enjoyed overwhelming military superiority, 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. But Western military support changed the course of the war. The Indonesian military's operations caused a widespread famine, resulting in mass civilian deaths between 1977 and 1979. A relatively small number of activists, primarily in the USA, Australia and Britain, generated pressure to end the famine.

The Australia East Timor Association

Australian activists of various ideologies and political affiliations had already achieved a moderate amount of organisation by the time Indonesia invaded. Accordingly, on the day of the invasion (Sunday 7 December 1975), approximately 300 people were able to attend a meeting, called at very short notice, at the Brotherhood of St Lawrence hall in the Melbourne inner-city suburb of Fitzroy. David Scott, who had just returned from East Timor via Darwin, addressed the meeting and explained how Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs had worked with the Indonesian Government via the ICRC to make sure that all foreign observers were out of the territory before the invasion. This lesson – that the absence of foreign witnesses was a necessary precondition for Indonesia to have freedom of action – was well and truly understood by activists from the earliest days of the independence struggle. They would learn from it and draw the necessary tactical conclusions 24 years later, when the Australian government once again tried to evacuate foreigners.

The Australia-East Timor Association (AETA) was formed that evening. According to the minutes of the first meeting, AETA recognized the Democratic Republic of East Timor, as initiated by Fretilin, and decided to send a deputation to the United Nations immediately to lobby in support of the representatives of the newly-formed republic. Bill Roberts of Action for World Development was elected President. More than $1000 was raised that night to pay for David Scott's airfare to New York, where he would help the lobbying effort. According to the minutes of the meeting, a vigil in support of East Timor was already underway outside the KLM Offices at 80 Collins Street. Furthermore, the haste with which activists had to move is illustrated by item 16 of the minutes:

There were six resolutions for which we don't have the exact wording at present referring to neutrality for hospitals, safe facilities for refugees, withdrawal of the joint resolution to UN with Indonesia and a firm and realistic resolution that could be urged. Establishment of a neutral zone for press in or near Dili.

A few members of the Australian public supported AETA from the very beginning. Below are a few examples from the AETA archives of letters and donations sent in by members of the public. Even though initial public support was feeble, the diverse backgrounds of these donors show that so-called 'ordinary Australians' sympathised with the East Timorese from the very beginning:

Just a small donation [$2] ... It would be larger but that I am a pensioner (Eva R. Barnett, Helens Road, Mount Dandenong). P.S. No receipt please.

On behalf of the Congregation of the Highett Presbyterian Church ... $25 to be used in connection with the United Nations Delegation to East Timor. (Mr D.J. Smith, 23 Jan 1976).

Please find enclosed a donation for $37.31, for use by your Association in its work for the independence of East Timor. Members of our family raised this money by not buying family Christmas presents, and it was our wish that the work of your Association be supported. (Marg and John Bottomley, 8 Jan 1976).

The international solidarity movement arose from the cumulative actions of largely unknown individuals like these. The NSW branch of AETA was formed at a lunchtime meeting on Tuesday 9 December 1975. It rapidly organised a public meeting on 11 December 1975 at the Law School Auditorium at Phillip Street, Sydney. The featured speaker was James Dunn, who had just returned from East Timor. Other AETA branches were formed soon after – in Brisbane, Hobart, Adelaide, Wollongong and elsewhere.

The US activist network for East Timor

The US activist network for East Timor began just after the invasion. Arnold Kohen, a 25-year-old volunteer journalist at a radio features program called 'Ithaca Rest of the News,' heard that Indonesia had invaded East Timor. In his search for more information, he obtained tapes of news conferences held at the Church Centre for the United Nations. These tapes featured Jose Ramos-Horta, who had just come to New York as East Timor's representative to the UN. These tapes came from Liberation News Service in New York. Richard Franke, who was the first US activist to get involved, had formed the East Timor Defence Committee in New York, whose members could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Read a paper by Franke.

Kohen heard the tapes and was very moved by them and by written materials he had also received, especially an account by Pacific News Service that described Ramos-Horta and his colleagues leaving East Timor and trying to alert the world to what was about to happen.

Kohen used the tapes to make his own radio programs. Ithaca was the home of Cornell University, whose Modern Indonesia Project was the most influential Indonesian studies program in the US. He was therefore able to contact Professor Benedict Anderson, one of the world's leading scholars of Indonesia. Anderson agreed to be Kohen's advisor.1 The Cornell-Ithaca East Timor Defence Committee was formed after Jose Ramos-Horta spoke at Cornell University in April 1976. Kohen spearheaded an energetic and highly effective campaign of raising public awareness with the help of a very small group of scholars, including Anderson, Franke, Noam Chomsky, Roberta Quance, and – in the late 1970s – Michael Chamberlain and Jeremy Mark. Sue Nichterlein and Richard Tanter assisted the Fretilin External Delegation at the United Nations in New York.

Kohen explained his motivation as follows:

I had a broad interest in human rights, and as somebody of Jewish background it seemed to me that there was a great injustice taking place. There was a certain feeling that this really needed to be addressed. There was something about the issue that moved me deeply in those early days. I grew up down the street from Holocaust survivors, and so human suffering was something that was significant in my subconscious. I'd heard about these atrocities, and of course I don't want to make facile comparisons with the Holocaust; this involved different issues. But the fact that so many East Timorese were being killed and they were not getting much attention – it became a central focus in my feelings. I was 25 years old at the time. I had, as I think often happens, a certain openness to things which becomes different as you get older. Which is not to say that one cares any less as one gets older. But there was a certain feeling that this needed to be addressed. I had the time to do so, I became engaged and I never stopped.

Arnold Kohen, 2008. Photo by Clinton Fernandes.

Arnold Kohen provided Professor Noam Chomsky, the renowned linguist and political activist, with a 40 page memo and 100 pages of documentation for a chapter in a book, The Political Economy of Human Rights. The book, co-authored with Edward Herman, gave prominence to East Timor, which became a signature issue of Chomsky. Chomsky's profile brought the East Timor question into universities around the world, informing many people about the atrocities and their misrepresentation by governments and the media.

According to Kohen, 'It's important to recognise there was no one of any international stature – real international stature – who was willing to say anything in those years. There may have been parliamentarians or individual members of Congress, but essentially these were people who were unknown internationally. Chomsky was not unknown, and Chomsky took it up at a point when no one else was willing to come forth. And that always has to be remembered.'2

Kohen accompanied James Markham, one of the best reporters at the New York Times, to Lisbon. Markham was conducting interviews with East Timorese refugees who had settled there. While in Lisbon, he developed a good rapport with Markham, who was horrified at the refugees' testimony. They both agreed that more members of the US Congress needed to know about this. Kohen says, 'at that point we'd only gone around Congress with Father Fernandes for a couple of months and with Father Leoneto do Rego for a few days, due to his health and the Catholic Church's sensitivity to Indonesian pressure. But we didn't really have the money to bring refugees back to the US from Lisbon. We hadn't gone to Lisbon planning that this would take place.'

However, those four days spent with James Markham convinced Kohen that the refugees' testimony needed to be brought to the attention of Congress. Having no money to buy the tickets to fly these refugees to the US, he decided to ask Noam Chomsky for help. Chomsky obliged immediately. Kohen says, 'I intended to pay him back but there never was enough money. I never did pay him back, and he never asked for it.' Professor Benedict Anderson also helped with money, as did Herb Feith of Australia's Monash University.

Kohen worked intensively for several years with East Timorese refugees Ao Seu Ki, Vicente Guterres Saldanha and others chosen by James Markham for their credibility. They went to Washington and elsewhere in the US and met about 100 congressional officers in early 1980, playing a crucial role in developing long-term Congressional contacts. Kohen and the refugees collaborated for several years in the US and Portugal.

International networks

Academic connections allowed US and Australian scholars to join forces. In April 1976, at ACFOA's request, Australian parliamentarian Ken Fry spoke on behalf of East Timor at the UN Security Council in New York. ACFOA paid Fry's airfare to New York and back. Fry recalls that he had been reluctant to go because he was a very new parliamentarian, and was quite intimidated by the prospect of speaking at the UN. However, he decided to go after receiving strong encouragement from his colleague, Senator Arthur Gietzelt.

In New York, Fry received assistance from US activists and several Australians who were in New York at the time, such as Sue Nichterlein, Richard Tanter and Helen Hill. Fry addressed the Security Council on 14 April 1976 as part of the debate on Resolution 389, which reaffirmed the East Timorese right of self-determination and called on Indonesia to withdraw immediately. In his speech, which was written with the help of (US-based) Australian scholar Helen Hill, Fry described his personal experience of East Timor during his two trips in 1975, and the overwhelming support Fretilin enjoyed among the East Timorese. He also lobbied other countries' missions to the UN. By contrast, of course, Australia's permanent mission to the UN was lobbying openly in support of Indonesia's claims to East Timor. In the end, the resolution was carried by twelve votes to zero. Hill continued to participate in the growth of a network of scholars who provided accurate information about East Timor. In time, networks like these were responsible for the creation of a powerful counter-hegemonic intellectual challenge to official Indonesian and Australian information.

In September 1976, Fry addressed the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference in Mauritius. He was therefore able to inform parliamentary delegates from leading anti-apartheid African states like Kenya and Tanzania about the situation in East Timor. At the conclusion of this conference, Fry and his wife Audrey spent a few days in nearby Mozambique. This proved to be an important event because he met several senior Fretilin leaders who were living in exile in Maputo. He observed that Maputo had become a kind of headquarters in exile for the diaspora East Timorese, whose commitment to independence had not flagged at all. He later recalled that the Maputo meetings strengthened his belief that the struggle was by no means a lost cause. The government of Mozambique gave scholarships to many East Timorese, enabling them to study and develop professional skills. Mozambique also served as a safe meeting place for the external Fretilin Central Committee.

More networking occurred in 1977, when Fry spoke about East Timor at a press conference during the International Parliamentary Union (IPU) conference in Bulgaria. This talk was particularly helpful in enlisting the support of Scandinavian delegates, some of whom wept after hearing details of Indonesian military atrocities. As a result of his talk, he was invited to Stockholm on another awareness-raising campaign. There he met a junior official in the Australian embassy, Michael Costello, who would later become Secretary of DFAT. Over the years, links like these would proliferate and prove valuable for future lobbying purposes. There was a price to be paid for Fry's involvement in the East Timor cause: in 1976, he became one of the targets of Operation Answer, which was conducted by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO). This operation involved the monitoring of telecommunications, bank accounts and other activities of East Timor activists. In addition, the Criminal Investigation Division of the Commonwealth Police (forerunner to the Australian Federal Police) investigated the ACT branch of the Australia East Timor Association, of which Fry was patron.

Not all supporters of East Timor were from the parliamentary left. The 2nd/2nd Commando Association, whose members represented a mixed bag of political currents, launched a Timor Relief Appeal in 1976. The Australian Army's Major General Cullen was another supporter. There were calls for self-determination by Liberal Party figures such as Michael Hodgman, the parliamentarian in the federal seat of Denison in Tasmania. According to Dr Helen Hill, Richard Alston, president of the Victorian Liberal Party and former chairman of ACFOA, and Michael Darby, John Whitehall and Bill Bancroft, all associated with the right-wing journal Free Market, were also supporters of self-determination. The Liberal parliamentarian John Dowd of New South Wales took up the cause of East Timor through the International Commission of Jurists.


In the years immediately following the Indonesian invasion, Portugal's stance was, as Estevao Cabral notes, 'characterised by passivity and ambivalence'. It 'contrasted sharply with the assertive Indonesian diplomatic strategy.' When David Scott was at the United Nations, he used the good offices of the Guinea-Bissau mission to obtain a meeting with the Portuguese Chargé d'Affaires, da Costa Lobo. Da Costa Lobo indicated that Portugal did not want to take any action over Indonesia's disregard for the UN Security Council resolution. He did not respond to Scott's request that Portugal recognise the Fretilin government with conditions for early popular elections.

After the Indonesian invasion, Portugal enshrined its support for East Timorese independence in its Constitution. Article 307, which was approved by an absolute majority in the Assembleia da Republica (the Portuguese Parliament) in April 1976, affirmed Portugal's 'responsibilities, in harmony with international law, to promote and guarantee East Timor's right to independence.'

British solidarity

Some British activists had become interested in East Timor even before the invasion. John Taylor, who had written his PhD thesis on Southeast Asia and Indonesia, had participated in the formation of an organization called the British Indonesia Committee in the early 1970s. This group, which comprised human rights activists, academics and students, supported those who had been persecuted by the Suharto regime. It worked on issues of political imprisonment, and also conducted a more general critique of Suharto's developmental and political approach. Since it tried from the very beginning to make alternative information about Indonesia available to the media, it had some connections to the media and members of parliament. It also had contacts among dissident Indonesians in Paris, who would send it information bulletins.

In 1974, John Taylor met five East Timorese students who were transiting through London on their way back to Dili. These students would soon be part of the Fretilin leadership. Taylor became part of the British Campaign for an Independent East Timor (BCIET), which began in December 1975 just after the invasion. Its members tried to ensure that news about East Timor got into the press. They also lobbied members of parliament and built up some support in the Labour Party. They liaised with a group of parliamentarians who would respond to developments in Indonesia and East Timor. For example, Parliamentary Questions were asked by Ms Audrey Wise (7 July 1976), Mr Stanley Newens (28 January 1976, 6 July 1976, 30 June 1977), Mr David Knox (20 July 1977), Mr Cyril Townsend (21 July 1977), Mr Dennis Canavan (22 July 1977) and Mr William Wilson (25 July 1977).

The burden of the campaign after 1979 was shouldered by TAPOL, the British Campaign for the Release of Indonesian Political Prisoners. TAPOL had been formed in August 1973 by Carmel Budiardjo, a British woman who had been imprisoned without trial in Indonesia along with her Indonesian husband Suwondo Budiardjo for alleged membership of the Indonesian Communist Party.' TAPOL's advocacy on behalf of East Timor preceded the Indonesian invasion. It had written to the British government in August 1975 to urge an international initiative in favour of East Timor's right to self-determination. It argued that Indonesia's record of violence since 1965 indicated nothing but violence and terror for the Timorese. Its October 1975 Bulletin carried a report on the very first page – East Timor: Indonesian Takeover means Bloodshed and Terror. By 1979, of course, the defeat of Fretilin coincided with the release of Indonesia's political prisoners. TAPOL therefore decided to focus on East Timor. As its campaign began to expand, it adopted the subtitle of 'Indonesia Human Rights Campaign.'

The Illegal Radio Project

Perhaps the most elaborate project undertaken by Australian activists in this period was the construction of an illegal radio link between the Northern Territory and East Timor. Warwick Neilley, the organiser of the North Australian Workers Union (later part of the Miscellaneous Workers Union) bought a few Single Side Band (SSB) radios from a store in Darwin. Some were sent to Fretilin in Dili so as to maintain communications through Outpost Radio, VJY Darwin. At least one radio was retained in Darwin in case of an emergency. Fretilin had set up an evening broadcast, known as Radio Maubere, on the AM band. Fretilin didn't use portable radios at first – they preferred using the Marconi Centre in Dili, which had better facilities.

Once the Indonesian invasion began, the East Timorese resistance used an SSB mounted on the back of a donkey. In December 1975, the Fraser government ordered that the transmissions cease. Brian Manning and his comrades then had to face the task of setting up an alternative communications network. (While this was going on, a campaign to lift the radio ban was launched under the slogan 'Let East Timor Speak.') The problem was that while it was legal to listen in to Radio Maubere broadcasts, it was illegal under Australian law to transmit from Australian territory without a license. Activists therefore set up their own transmitter, beginning a covert – and illegal – operation to complement the overt, legal one. The Communist Party network outfitted a Toyota Coaster to look just like a tourist vehicle, complete with a small boat on the roof and a trail bike in the back. An activist would broadcast from it while travelling around the Top End of Australia as a tourist.

The game of cat and mouse with federal authorities continued. Sometimes the broadcaster would be caught and the radio confiscated, other times he would evade capture by stealth and deception. The Communist Party network adopted even more covert tactics, seeking volunteers who were reliable, unknown in the Northern Territory and able to operate autonomously. Each volunteer would work in isolation for six months before handing over to the next volunteer. They obtained four such volunteers from the southern states of Australia. The illegal radio operation continued to operate until the end of 1978 as the only link between the external solidarity movement and the Timorese resistance.

Manning gave a very high priority to operational secrecy, limiting control of the radio to all but a very few people. Activists occasionally used ABC's Radio Australia broadcasts to indirectly get Fretilin to listen to the illegal radio's transmissions – they would send press releases to the Radio Australia news desk on Sundays, holidays and slow news periods, knowing that they would be incorporated into the news broadcasts along the following lines: 'Supporters of Fretilin in Darwin are expecting to re-establish communications with the resistance in East Timor.' The powerful Radio Australia transmitter ensured that Fretilin got the message. All the while, activists continued to record the public, legal broadcasts known as Radio Maubere.

The image below shows Labor parliamentarian Ken Fry and Brian Manning.

Without the illegal radio operation, Fretilin would have been unable to maintain contact with the external solidarity movement. Bereft of this support, the Indonesian plan may well have succeeded.

The entire project operated under frugal conditions. Activists in the Illegal Radio Project were hindered by the firm of John Holland Constructions Pty Ltd. The radio frequency used by Alarico Fernandes and the Australian activists was 5270 KHz, the same as John Holland P/L. According to Robert Wesley-Smith, CIET spokesperson at the time,

Whenever the Fretilin leader comes on the air, JH comes in too – deliberately jamming the broadcast … with derogatory remarks like "It's only the red rabbit" or "It's only Fretilin rubbish". It's not as if Alarico interrupts their transmissions. He invariably waits until there is a break, observing the normal courtesies of the airwaves. There have also been times when someone has repeatedly called up a non-answering field station purely for the purpose of blocking out Timor.

Neil Sullivan, then the Acting Director of Community Aid Abroad, wrote to the owner, Sir John Holland. Sullivan pointed out that the Timorese use of the frequency was 'probably quite irregular' and that they had 'little or no choice in the channel on which they can speak (especially at this time of year when atmospheric interference is at a peak)'. He therefore asked for 'a little flexibility.'

In his reply, Sir John did not discuss Sullivan's request to share the frequency. His response was blunt: 'As we are operating our sets legally and for the community's benefit, we can see no reason why we should not continue to do so particularly when we understand that the Fretilin transmissions are illegal.'

The Illegal Radio Project came to an end in the final months of 1978. According to an Indonesian journalist who accompanied the military on their operations, a battle on 23 September 1978 was soon followed by the capture of Alarico Fernandes and the Fretilin radio. The military leader of the armed resistance, Nicolau Lobato, was killed on 31 December 1978. With his death and the loss of the radio, Australian activists could not receive any more news from the territory. (US activists were never wholly reliant on the radio, however). Activists continued to maintain a listening watch, tuning in every day from Monday to Saturday at 8.00 a.m. – and often more frequently. After more than a year, however, they stopped because nothing was heard. Phase Two of the international solidarity movement concluded at this point.

1Kohen recalled Anderson saying to him in February 1976, 'Well, you know, you're interested in this today but will you be interested two or three months from now? People always drop things, they pick them up and drop them.'

2Interview with the author, February 2010.