Companion to East Timor - FRETILIN


Seven East Timorese students returned from Portugal in September 1974. They were Abilio Araujo, Guilhermina Araujo, Antonio Carvarino, Vicente Manuel Reis, Roque Rodrigues, Rosa Muki Bonaparte and Venancio Gomes da Silva. They had been members of student groups in Portugal such as the MLTD (Movimento Libertacao Timor Dili) and FULINTID (Frente Unica de Libertacao de Timor Dili). Their strident anti-colonial rhetoric was combined with provocative slogans such as Death to the Fascists! (referring to their rivals in the other political organisations). Possibly under their influence, ASDT renamed itself the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, FRETILIN (Frente Revolucionaria de Timor Leste Independente) on 11 September 1974. Fretilin described itself as 'a front that united nationalist and anti-colonial groups under one vision – the liberation of Timorese from colonialism.' Many in UDT, which was dominated by conservative, land-owning families, were threatened by a Fretilin initiative called 'alphabetizacao' or basic literacy. The UDT leaders complained that the workers on their coffee plantations and farms were happy and contented, and didn't need to be stirred up by troublemakers with their literacy programs.

Fretilin's leaders, almost all of whom were in their twenties, were heavily influenced by the intellectual, cultural and political climate of the 1960s. Their teachers in the Jesuit seminary at Dare, in the foothills of Dili, had also been influenced by the same atmosphere, and by the Catholic Church's reforms in the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). For more than two decades before the Council, the pope had been the 'deeply authoritarian and antidemocratic' Pius XII (1939-1958). He had remained publicly silent in the face of the genocide in World War II, had excommunicated all members of the Communist party everywhere in the world but 'had not the slightest thought of excommunicating the Catholics Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels and Bormann.' Under his successor, Pope John XXIII, the Council corrected him on almost all decisive points. John XXIII had been an outspoken advocate of international social justice in his 1961 encyclical, Mater et Magistra. He had called on the Church to be open to the modern world and to affirm human rights in his 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris. The Second Vatican Council instructed the faithful that Church resources should serve truth, peace and justice, with special attention to the poor and dispossessed. Many of the future nationalist leaders of East Timor encountered the exhilarating intellectual atmosphere of the Second Vatican Council during their studies in the Jesuit seminary, where their teachers critiqued colonialism and introduced their students to new ideas.

Fretilin's young leaders absorbed all these lessons, to the annoyance of clerics who had spent the better part of their careers in the time of Pius XII. The head of the Church in East Timor was Bishop Dom Jose Joaquim Ribeiro, a conservative figure who was keen to protect the Church's privileged status in East Timor. The Church enjoyed state subsidies, tax exemptions, a privileged position in education and large land grants. Fretilin's leaders, many of them fresh out of the seminary and the ferment of the 1960s, criticized the Church's complicity in Portuguese colonialism, its wealth and its large land holdings. Bishop Ribeiro retaliated by describing Fretilin as communists and forbidding Catholics to vote for them. His counterpart across the border, Bishop Theodore van den Tillart of Atambua, joined him in describing Fretilin as communists. He informed Australia's Cardinal Knox that Fretilin received help from international communism and had committed extensive human rights abuses. Cardinal Knox subsequently worked in the Vatican. The Apostolic Pro-Nuncio in Jakarta, the late Vincenzo Farano, was another Church figure who helped depict Fretilin as communists. He would host dinners for other foreign ambassadors at his official residence in Jakarta. A foreign diplomat who attended these dinners recalled that 'Indonesian officials would pontificate at the table about the Chinese and the Cubans interfering in Timor and the danger it represented to the region. And of course all these other ambassadors were sitting at the table totally ignorant of the situation, lapping this up as information.' In the immediate aftermath of the invasion, the Vatican adopted a position that these bishops were pushing. Various missions would come to the Vatican in later years and talk among themselves about how the situation in East Timor ended up as bad as it did. They would say that these clergymen had been partly responsible.

Fretilin's penchant for florid rhetoric did not help matters either. Although no elections had been held, Fretilin asserted that it was the East Timorese peoples' 'sole legitimate representative' – an obvious allusion to the rhetoric of Guinea-Bissau's liberation movement. Indeed, some members of Fretilin were given to using Marxist rhetoric. The most doctrinaire of Fretilin's leaders was Abilio Araujo, later a collaborator with Indonesia. Rhetoric aside, Fretilin's program focused on decolonization, land reform, administrative reform, popular education and the development of small industries based on primary products like coffee. Michael Curtin, the head of the Indonesia section at Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs, wrote that Fretilin was 'the sort of party we would have welcomed, even encouraged, anywhere else than in Timor.'