Companion to East Timor - International Solidarity - Phase One

International Solidarity – Phase One

The international solidarity movement for East Timor was not formed de novo, but drew many of its original members from groups and networks involved in previous social movements. The historical tributaries include former military personnel, members of aid organisations, academics, communists, members of the peace movement during the Vietnam War and members of some church groups. This is, obviously, a very eclectic range of groups and individuals. There was no coordination of their activities in the early phase of the movement. Indeed, many had no idea that they were even part of a movement. Among those who did know that other groups were supporting East Timor, there was considerable disagreement on almost every issue except one – that the East Timorese be allowed to determine their own future. Former military personnel, for example, were often suspicious of – if not openly hostile to – those who had spent the decade before the Indonesian invasion opposing Australia's participation in the US attack on Vietnam. As the years went on, however, members of different groups developed personal friendships as well as a greater understanding of each others' motivations. As a consequence, their activities took on greater coherence.

It should be noted that there was no rigid division between the memberships of these groups; academics, for example, sometimes participated in the peace movement, and members of aid organisations were also members of church groups.

Former military personnel

In the broader Australian community, not many people knew very much about East Timor, with an important exception – former members of the 2nd/2nd Independent Company and the 2nd/4th Independent Company, who had seen action in East Timor during World War II. In addition, members of the 2nd/21st Infantry Battalion, the 2nd/40th Infantry Battalion and the 2nd/1st Heavy Battery had been deployed across the border in West.

The 2nd/2nd Commando Association had been formed in February 1946. Most of its members lived in Western Australia. Although few in number, the veterans were a close knit group. They raised $4000 for the construction of a memorial expressing their gratitude to the East Timorese. The Australian government of Prime Minister John Gorton provided another $4000. This memorial was inaugurated on 13 April 1969 at Fatunaba near Dili. Before the invasion, members of the Association had petitioned the Australian government to purchase East Timor from the Portuguese in order to improve living conditions for the people. The government, of course, had no interest in this proposal at all; on the contrary, it was disengaging from the little involvement it did have. 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.' Former commando John Burridge flew to Dili and shared his experiences with the other former commandos on his return. As a result of these conversations, the old soldiers planned a collective return visit in 1971. Their trip, which took place in 1973, resulted in the renewal of many old friendships with their former Timorese comrades and the formation of new friendships as well.

In order to help Australians communicate with the East Timorese, one of the veterans, Cliff Morris, compiled an English-Tetum dictionary. Morris also collected and published traditional East Timorese folk stories. A delegation of former soldiers led by a member of the 2nd/2nd Commando Association, Arthur Stevenson, went to Canberra in 1975 to lobby for a small peace keeping force to 'get the idea of decolonisation off the ground.'

Academics, student activists and members of aid organisations

In 1968, the National Union of Australian University Students commissioned a report on Portuguese Timor. This report was published in the union newspaper National U on 22 July 1968. Until this report was published, East Timor was almost completely unknown to Australians outside the well-organised but insular network of former commandos. Student activists in Australia had begun familiarising themselves with African politics as a result of their links with church activists in the Australian 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 were less aware of political currents in Portuguese Timor. Churches in Australia paid very little attention to Portuguese Timor at this time. Catholic churches had sheltered those members of the clergy who fled the territory in 1942 but made no further contact with the Timorese church until twenty years after World War II.

Some student activists in Melbourne were linked to a group known as Action for World Development, which was affiliated to the Australian Council For Overseas Aid. These activists typically belonged to the Australian Union of Students (AUS), which was the successor to the National Union of Australian University Students. The AUS had been formed in 1971, when students from the old Teachers' Colleges and Institutes of Technology joined forces with students from the universities (Hastings 2000). The student unions had a strong radical tradition; in the 1960s, the NUAUS had taken up the campaign against conscription for the war against Vietnam. It used revenue from fundraising activities on campuses to establish its own scholarships for Aboriginal students, known as ABSCHOL. It was in response to this initiative that the federal government set up a similar program, known today as ABSTUDY. The Australian Union of Students retained the NUAUS's political edge, playing a key role in coordinating opposition to a now-famous tour by the apartheid-era South African rugby team, the Springboks. These protests led to a ban on all sporting links with South Africa. The Australian Union of Students also played a leading role in second wave feminism. As part of this commitment to progressive politics, the Union sent a student named Grant Evans to Portuguese Timor to write and take photos for a booklet on the subject. All this added, however incrementally, to the public's knowledge of the territory.

1973 – an eventful year

1973 was the year that solidarity groups in Australia began to take a serious interest in East Timor. As discussed previously, the reunion visit of former commandos occurred that year. In addition, the UN's Special Committee on Decolonisation published its annual report, which was submitted to the UN General Assembly. This report became front-page news in Australia when the press reported that two Australian companies, BHP (Broken Hill Proprietary) and TAA (Trans-Australia Airlines, Australia's state-owned domestic airline at the time) were in breach of UN resolutions because of their involvement in Portuguese Timor: BHP was involved in mineral exploration and TAA was flying Portuguese troops to Dili. These UN resolutions called on Portugal to allow self-determination for its colonies.

In response to this story, a number of ACFOA member agencies called on the Australian government to terminate all government and private sector ties with East Timor. They also opposed a forthcoming visit by Portugal's Export Promotion Board.

According to Chris Santos, a left-wing Portuguese journalist who lived in East Timor at the time, he and a number of other members of the population who were opposed to Portuguese rule heard about all these developments in Australia over the radio. They regularly tuned in to Radio Australia's broadcasts, keeping track of developments in Europe and Australia. Their practical knowledge of the outside world was very limited, however. Only those who were visitors (or had been deported) from Portugal, or who were deported from Timor to one of Portugal's African colonies, had been outside the territory. These dissidents knew that the Portuguese Export Promotion Board would be visiting, but they had no way of contacting anyone in Australia. Their concern was to avoid being targeted by the Portuguese secret police because, if caught, they would be deported to some other remote Portuguese colony.

Also in 1973, Australian academics and students in the field of international development began to criticise the Indonesian development model, advocating instead a more self-reliant, participatory approach with local control, a greater emphasis on ecological issues and a specific focus on the emancipation of women. The Monash University academic Herb Feith was a particularly influential critic – he had pioneered the Volunteer Graduate Scheme with his visit to Indonesia in 1951, working as an interpreter in the Indonesian Ministry of Information. Feith's Indonesia credentials and his familiarity with the emerging discipline of development studies lent credibility to his criticism of the New Order's economic policies.

There was another cause for concern in 1973: Amnesty International had published extensive documentation showing that Indonesia had the largest number of political prisoners in the world. Amnesty International's documents fed directly into Australia's political debate on 22 June the following year, when the ABC's Four Corners program showed that the Australian Defence Force had been training Indonesian military personnel in interrogation techniques at Woodside in South Australia. The Four Corners story triggered a heated debate in Australia, with trade unions, churches, academics and others voicing their opposition. Many activist groups remembered the destruction of the Indonesian left in 1965-6, and the kind of economic and political system imposed on Indonesia in the aftermath of the Suharto ascendancy. The debate about Australian military relations with Indonesia was directly related to the issue of East Timor's future; only two months previously, the Armed Forces Movement coup in Portugal had overthrown the Caetano regime, putting the question of East Timor's future political status firmly on the agenda. Most Australians interested in East Timor therefore saw little reason to call for it to be integrated into Indonesia. Instead, many supported the right of the East Timorese to determine their own future – as an independent state or as part of a Portuguese Federation or, indeed, as a part of Indonesia, if that was their preference. Thus, several Australian groups with an interest in East Timor began to support self-determination without any prompting from the East Timorese.

After the Carnation Revolution

In October 1974, Denis Freney flew into East Timor. Freney was a member of the Communist Party of Australia and a journalist for its weekly newspaper, Tribune. On his return, he lobbied other activists, many of whom had been working against apartheid in South Africa, to support self-determination in East Timor. In mid-November 1974, his efforts resulted in the formation of the Campaign for an Independent East Timor (CIET), headquartered in Sydney. This campaign received support from the trade unions and the peace movement. Freney also alerted activists around the world to developments in East Timor. He then helped put together a broad-based delegation to East Timor. Its members included Jim Roulston, Victorian president of the Metalworkers' Union, Keith Wilson of the Newcastle Trades and Labor Council, John Birch of Community Aid Abroad, the Adelaide Aboriginal activist Bill Williams, Mark Aarons of ABC Radio's Talks and Documentaries department and Jill Jolliffe of the Australian Union of Students.

These trade unionists were well connected to Australian Labor Party politicians. Following discussions and requests for support from the trade union activists, these politicians organised a federal parliamentary delegation to East Timor. The delegation, which was led by Labor parliamentarian John Kerin, visited East Timor in March 1975. Among its members was Ken Fry, a backbencher from the Australian Labor Party. Fry was impressed by the leadership of both Fretilin and UDT. He would later write that Fretilin was 'the party of the masses', UDT was 'a smaller white collar and commercial group' and that APODETI was 'a very small group' of people who had 'business and matrimonial links with Indonesia.' . He came away with a deep respect for the East Timorese claim to independence and would continue to support this cause for the rest of his parliamentary career, and beyond. The importance of this visit, and a subsequent one made a few months later, cannot be overstated: Fry would be sustained during the most difficult periods of the independence struggle by his conviction that the population was overwhelmingly pro-independence and pro-Fretilin.

Early in 1975, Fretilin invited the Northern Territory Trades and Labor Council (NTTLC) to send delegates to the occasion of the first anniversary of the founding of Fretilin. Since Darwin had been physically devastated on Christmas Day 1974 by Cyclone Tracey, most members of the Trades and Labor Council – like other Darwinians – were rebuilding their homes and were unable to accept the invitation. The only two members of the NTTLC who did were Lai Con Liong, an East Timor-born wharfie, and Brian Manning, a trade unionist and member of the Communist Party of Australia 2003.

Manning and Liong flew into Baucau on 19 May 1975. From there, they flew to Dili by light aircraft, observing the events, taking photographs and meeting many East Timorese leaders. On their return, Manning circulated the photographs he had taken to trade union journals and to Tribune, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Australia. As Secretary of the Darwin branch of the Waterside Workers' Federation and founding Secretary of Darwin's Trades and Labor Council (1971-74), he was well connected in the union movement. He spoke favourably of Fretilin in these circles because he was 'certain that Fretilin enjoyed massive support among the population.' Like Ken Fry, he would also be sustained for twenty-four years by his conviction that the population was overwhelmingly pro-independence. He later recalled that he 'had the extraordinary experience of witnessing the incredible jubilation of the ordinary East Timorese.'

Fretilin leaders needed to leave East Timor to develop their foreign relations. They were denied visas for Australia unless they had accommodation in Darwin. Manning was able to guarantee accommodation at his house in Darwin, where he had an unused bedroom as well as a caravan that had not been damaged by the cyclone. He also helped Fretilin communicate with the outside world: their representatives would phone him from Dili and read out messages to him. He would copy them down in longhand and send a copy to Denis Freney, who was one of the addressees. Freney would then send these messages out to his contacts.

The Communist Party of Australia assisted with the information effort because they spotted a critical vulnerability – the Australian public knew almost nothing about East Timor. In October 1975, therefore, Denis Freney published a 68-page booklet called Timor: Freedom Caught Between the Powers. It carried an appeal for assistance by Fretilin's central committee in Dili, a message from Franciso Xavier do Amaral, who would soon be the first president of the short-lived Democratic Republic of East Timor, and an interview with Jose Ramos-Horta.

Aid Organisations

Aid organisations became involved in the politics of the East Timor situation early in 1975, when Australian newspaper reports indicated that the Indonesian Government was 'seriously considering taking out Portuguese Timor in a military operation in the not-too-distant future.' A few days later, there were more reports on this subject, including claims – attributed to intelligence sources – that the Indonesian military was deploying troops from Java to the border of West Timor. There was publicity in Australia as a result of these stories. The Shadow Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock accused Prime Minister Whitlam of selling out East Timor. For non-governmental organisations operating in the foreign aid sector, this story – and the high-pressure diplomacy it implied – changed the nature of the debate about East Timor. From this point onwards, their involvement in projects in East Timor was no longer solely about foreign aid and benign humanitarian activities; instead, it had become an issue in Australia-Indonesia relations. The explicit political implications of the new situation alarmed many aid organisations, which preferred undertaking activities that were 'non-political.'

After the UDT coup (or internal political conflict, or attempted coup, or armed uprising, or movement, or anti-communist action, etc – take your pick), aid organisations became even more involved in the politics of the dispute. ACFOA passed a resolution calling on the Australian government to express its support for the principle of 'independence of choice' for the people of East Timor. The first aid organisation to enter the territory after the civil war was ASIAT, the Australian Society for Intercountry Aid to Timor. ASIAT was founded by John Whitehall, a Sydney pediatrician, and Michael Darby, a former Army officer and right-wing political figure. According to one source (Dr Helen Hill), most ASIAT members did not share Darby's political views. ASIAT needed money to charter a ship to Dili. This was obtained by offering Channel Nine, an Australian TV network, an exclusive story in return for a down payment of $6000 and a daily fee of $1000. With the money they received from Channel Nine, the managed to charter a twenty-four metre ex-Japanese fishing vessel known as the Konpina Maru, which had been salvaged after Cyclone Tracey (December 1974) by two Darwin sailors, Syd Hawkes and John Chatterton. Hawkes, Chatterton, Whitehall and Darby, accompanied by journalist Gerald Stone and Channel Nine's owner Kerry Packer, set off from Darwin twenty days after the UDT coup. Since the Australian government had imposed a ban on ships travelling to East Timor, they informed the Australian Customs Service that they were going crayfishing in Indonesian waters. Once they were well and truly on their way, they radioed to say they had changed course and were headed for Dili. According to Dr Helen Hill, 'ASIAT provided the backbone for the medical services of the whole colony.' A delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross also arrived in the territory.

Both ASIAT and the ICRC reported on their experiences at a conference in Melbourne convened by ACFOA. This conference resulted in the establishment of a task force on East Timor. An investigating team was dispatched to the territory to conduct a survey of its short-term and long-term needs. The team consisted of Mark Raper of the Jesuits' Asian Bureau (Australia), John Mayor of the Australian Council of Churches, Neill O'Sullivan of Community Aid Abroad (CAA) and Jim Dunn, a former Australian Consul in Portuguese Timor. At this time, the Australian Council of Churches, Australian Catholic Relief, Austcare, the Freedom from Hunger Campaign and Community Aid Abroad launched a Timor Relief Appeal, which raised about $160,000. The investigating team requested grain, milk powder, medical supplies, caustic soda (for soap manufacture), textiles, seeds and petrol. These goods were loaded onto a barge (the Alanna Fay) in Darwin, but it was not allowed to leave the port until most of the petrol had been unloaded at the insistence of the Australian government (Hill 1980). When the Alanna Fay arrived in Dili, the supplies were unloaded and a cargo of coffee was placed on board. This coffee had been earmarked for sale to a buyer in Sydney for the price of $40,000. Activists deposited the funds in an account in the Darwin branch of the Commonwealth Bank.

Even before the Indonesian invasion, therefore, aid agencies had already established firm bonds with members of the East Timorese leadership. Importantly, both sides were also learning of the Australian government's opposition to their combined activities. They were also learning that their activities were opposed by Australian corporate opinion; in November 1975 the Australia-Indonesia Business Cooperation Council (AIBCC) declared its support for Indonesia and urged the Australian government to 'resist pressures for any form of censure of Indonesia by Australia.'

There was no rigid demarcation between aid agencies and ex-soldiers: one of the most important activists was David Scott, who cuts across both categories. In November 1975, Scott was a 50-year old father of two who only five months before had been made an Officer in the Order of Australia. He had received the award for his work with Community Aid Abroad (CAA), of which he was Founding Director and Chairman, and with the Brotherhood of St Lawrence, of which he was Director. Ideologically, he had little in common with the Communist Party activists. His personal links with East Timor went back to his father-in-law, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Leggatt. Leggatt had commanded the 2nd/40th Battalion at Kupang (West Timor), and had gone to Portuguese Timor where he organised the landing of 2nd/2nd Company on the beach at Dili in December 1941. Scott himself had joined the Royal Australian Navy during World War II, where he served on HMAS Arunta some months after that vessel had evacuated the 2nd/4th Independent Company from the south coast of the island.

As early as the 1960s, CAA had focused on the importance of the Australia-Indonesia relationship. As CAA Director at the time, Scott had gone to Indonesia at the suggestion of Professor Herb Feith and Jim Webb, the Founding Director of the Overseas Service Bureau. He tried to make contact with projects in Indonesia that the approximately 150 CAA groups around Australia could work on. On 24 November 1975, Scott was asked by Adrian Harris (the Director of CAA at the time) to go to East Timor to replace Bob Richards, who was returning to Australia. Scott agreed, and flew into Dili two days later in the company of Jose Ramos-Horta and Alarico Fernandes. He was therefore able to witness the swearing-in of the Cabinet of the Democratic Republic of East Timor on 28 November 1975. While in East Timor, Scott could see that Fretilin enjoyed enormous popular support. Also evident was the joy of the ordinary East Timorese. But ominous signs were also becoming apparent. Indonesia's state-owned radio was claiming that Fretilin was committing massacres and other atrocities, and that North Vietnam, China and the USSR were involved as well.

In addition to these Indonesian broadcasts, foreigners in East Timor were coming under pressure from the Australian authorities to leave the territory. David Scott received a telegram on 2 December 1975 from Adrian Harris, saying that there was 'considerable pressure from Foreign Affairs and Peacock for all Australians including yourself to evacuate.' On the heels of this telegram, Scott was met by Hubert Jeanrichard of the International Red Cross. Jeanrichard handed him a cable from the Department of Foreign Affairs. The cable stated that an aircraft would arrive at 1400 hours to evacuate all Australians, and that the Australian government would not be responsible for the safety of anyone who stayed behind. Scott refused to leave and informed Jeanrichard in writing: 'I wish to remain in Dili and understand the implications.' Next, Jeanrichard informed him that the Department of Foreign Affairs had sent another message, stating that Indonesia had named ACFOA and ASIAT as organisations that were cooperating with Fretilin and would therefore 'be done away with.' Realising that his organisation was being named as a direct target, Scott finally agreed to be evacuated. The evacuees were flown to the off-shore island of Atauro in a small aircraft chartered from SATAAS, the Darwin air charter company. They spent the night there and flew to Darwin by RAAF Hercules the next day.

Once in Darwin, Scott realised that Jose Ramos-Horta, Rogerio Lobato and Mari Alkatiri were still trapped in Dili. As ministers in the Democratic Republic of East Timor, they would certainly be singled out for a swift death. He therefore telephoned Adrian Harris in Melbourne and asked him to apply every available means of pressure to ensure the evacuation of these ministers. A frantic round of lobbying began, culminating in one final evacuation flight for the three ministers being personally ordered by the new Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock. Scott flew back to Melbourne, and – although he did not realise it at the time – would work for the independence of East Timor until he was 74 years old.

Read a review of David Scott's memoir here.