The struggle of the east-timorese
 The origins of the timorese people seem to be remarkably complex. There are proto-malayan, melanesian, negrito and dravidian elements. It is a melting pot, the origins of which - probably a succession of migrations - are still something of a mystery. However, there are two main ethnic groups in Timor and this is proof that the division of the island is not as arbitrary as one might suppose. The Atoni (or people of the dry lands) were the first to establish there. Then, between 3000 and 2000 b.c., came the Belu invaders who took the eastern part of the island. The Belu were warriors (in fact still are) and traders, it seems. Their language today is the tetum. The vanquished Atoni were confined to the central mountains and what is now Western Timor (the indonesian Nusa Tenggara Timur). The dutch and portuguese colonialists took notice of this reality when they divided the island among themselves in the XVIII century.

Thus the western and eastern part of the island of Timor already had a distinct ethnic make-up at the time of the arrival of the europeans, on the XVI century. This is still visible today, on language, architecture, folklore, etc.. Of course, the marked differences between dutch and portuguese colonization have only exacerbated these original differences. It's not even mainly a question of the different cultural imprints imposed by two very distinct european nations. It's that the very different regimes of colonial domination have created divergent in-built historical dynamics on the development of the timorese social fabric, East and West. Over four centuries this has made quite a difference.

The presence of the portuguese in Timor has always been very weak, at times merely nominal. In fact, the main resistance to dutch colonialism came from the east-timorese themselves, not the portuguese who have never had much interest in this colony. The authority of the portuguese crown was represented by some domenican missionaries and a number of powerful mixed-race families - the dutch called them black portuguese. - who went by the name of *topasses* (the word means interpreter in the tetum language). Only in 1906 was a system of tax-collection established. Since 1899, there was also some recruiting of personnel for work in coffee plantations. Traditional social and political institutions were nor affected. The power of the liurai (tribal kings) still remained in place in 1975. By the early 70's, 10% of the population was alphabetized. There was a doctor for each 27.000 inhabitants and 5 km of asphalted roads.

Indonesia has never claimed East-Timor from the portuguese colonialists. On the contrary, in spite of its responsibilities on the Third World movement, it has shown a consistent willingness to accommodate indefinitely with portuguese rule in East-Timor. It would function as a very convenient cushion. The only obsessive concern of the indonesian dictatorship was avoiding self-determination by the east-timorese, particularly in radical and socialist garb.

In 1959, there was an anti-colonial uprising in East-Timor. The portuguese army responded by burning villages, massacring populations and patrolling the streets (this, and other episodes, are now very conveniently forgotten). Indonesia didn't budge. But in April 1972, the indonesian press was full of rumors of an "anti-colonial coup" in East-Timor allegedly financed by the soviet ambassador to Jakarta. The fascist portuguese government has had to give the Indonesians its most firm assurances that everything was under control. Nevertheless, a visit of inspection was arranged for the indonesian foreign minister Adam Malik to watch for himself. He returned reassured.

One of the very few products of the portuguese empire that I'm proud of is a school of lusophone tropical marxism. There was an outstanding generation of men like Amilcar Cabral, Aristides Pereira, Aquino de Bragança, Eduardo Mondlane, Samora Machel, Marcelino dos Santos, Viriato da Cruz, Agostinho Neto, Mario de Andrade, etc., etc.. Theoreticians and leaders of liberation movements: the PAIGC (Guinea-Bissau and Cabo Verde), the FRELIMO (Mozambique), the MPLA (Angola). (Lets leave aside, for now, the superb novelists and poets.) Some of them studied in Portugal and came in contact with the clandestine Portuguese Communist Party. But they all came across one another repeatedly for exchange of views, information and the shaping of military and diplomatic tactics.

They were organized in the Conference of Nationalist Organizations of the Portuguese Colonies, with headquarters in Algiers, where the guevarist and third-worldist faction of the portuguese anti-fascist movement was also resident. A. Bragança, in particular, a goese journalist and academic, has followed closely all the liberation movements of portuguese colonies and remains one of the most authoritative historians of african nationalism (he co-authored books with Immanuel Wallerstein). If anyone, maybe this man deserved the title of public enemy nº 1 of portuguese fascism. He later served in governmental posts in Mozambique and died with president Samora Machel in the plane crash engineered by the south african secret services in 1986. M. Andrade, an angolan and founder of MPLA, ended his struggle alongside the PAIGC. Their common aim was to put the nationalist movement in their countries under firm hegemony of the popular masses, organized in a party with a clear socialist and anti-imperialist program.

The East-Timorese FRETILIN was a late comer but very enthusiastic member of this club. The political developments in East-Timor were very closely influenced with the ups and downs of the revolutionary process in Portugal. Indeed, its political cleavages had clear expression in the portuguese civilian and military apparatuses that ruled the territory.

FRETILIN was first called the Timorese Social Democratic Association (ASDT) when founded in May 20, 1974. Its aim was to oppose the neo-colonialist program of the UDT (the party of the tribal chiefs, high functionaries and powerful europeanized families) with a radical and popular nationalism. Following the defeat in Lisboa of the rightist coup of general Spinola of September 28, there was a marked shift to the left. UDT adopted independence and ASDT became FRETILIN (Revolutionary Front for Independent East-Timor), assuming the vanguardism of a liberation movement. For that contributed the arrival of a group of radicalized timorese students from portuguese universities.

On the 11th of March 1975, another failed spinolist coup, followed by a new wave of political radicalization in Portugal. The portuguese administration in Timor was trying to have a decolonization process going, based on an alliance UDT-FRETILIN and the principle of suffrage. For that, a conference was called for Macau (June, 25-27) with the three major parties UDT, FRETILIN and the pro-indonesian APODETI.

FRETILIN said the principle of independence was non-negotiable and refused to sit with APODETI. In fact, by now the party was totally converted to a rhetoric of heroism and legitimization by revolutionary violence. That was indeed the posture of the parties that had conducted armed struggle against the portuguese colonialists (PAIGC, FRELIMO and, in substance, the MPLA): they refused elections and any process of granted independence, which they considered paternalistic.

The FRETILIN leaders Nicolau Lobato and Xavier do Amaral failed Macau and went instead to the ceremonies of the independence of Mozambique, where they stayed for a whole month, entertained by an euphoric Samora Machel. They came home elated, full of plans and sketches for further plans. FRETILIN has maintained a very special relation with FRELIMO to this day, though their ideological coordinates have, of course, changed.

The "legal" transitional process was now protagonized by UDT and APODETI, while FRETILIN conducted a policy of armed struggle and liberated territories. Based on the results of the conference of Macau, Portugal approved its Constitutional Law nº 7/75, by which elections would be held in East-Timor for a General Assembly in October 1976. This assembly would decide the future of the territory, on which, whatever the decision, portuguese sovereignty would end in October 1978. Though voluntarily marginalized from this process, FRETILIN did participate in elections for local assemblies at the end of July, taking 55% of the votes.

UDT complained bitterly about a supposed connivance of radicalized sections of the portuguese army with the militaristic posture of FRETILIN. It called manifestations, strikes and, finally, staged a coup on August 10, demanding an immediate transfer of power for itself, under the threat of appealing for an intervention from Indonesia. With APODETI and two minor organizations UDT then formed the Anti-Communist Movement (MAC).

FRETILIN counter-attacked and defeated UDT, in a coordinated movement throughout the territory. All europeans were evacuated. The portuguese governor, his staff and 86 portuguese soldiers embark for the little island of Ataúro on August 26. The UDT leaders that were not imprisoned escaped to the western part of the island (Indonesia). By September 24, all was quiet in East-Timor, solidly in the hands of FRETILIN, whicn then made repeated pleas for the portuguese to return and resume the transition process. But governor Lemos Pires just wouldn't come back. It was ridiculous and went on for months.

The armed forces of FRETILIN, the FALINTIL, were now composed of 20.000 men (most of then trained in the portuguese army). After taking possession of the portuguese arsenal of Taibesse, they were relatively well equipped with G-3 machine-guns, Mauser pistols, bazookas, mortars, light artillery and Mercedes Unimog vehicles. They have managed to face and defeat numerous border incursions by the MAC and indonesians special forces. But indonesian pressure - by land, air and sea - kept mounting, with very superior fire power, while the attempts to call back the portuguese administration fell on deaf ears.

Atabae fell on November 26, and the road to the capital was open. Two days later, in a ceremony held in the Palace of the Governor, in Dili, was proclaimed the Democratic Republic of East-Timor, "an anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist state". The president of the republic was Nicolau Lobato, 29. The foreign minister was José Ramos-Horta, 26, but he left the island before the end of that year and is still not expected to return anytime soon. If we have to die, we'll die with our boots on, citizens of an independent state. "Pátria ou morte!"

The indonesian gun-boats were within sight, in Dili. But, far more ominous, the U.S. had just lost a war in Indochina to "defend" Indonesia. They were in no mood to let it be flanked by another "anti-imperialist" outpost, further to the south-east end of the archipelago. All the might of the world was about to fall on a lonesome, poor and backward people of 700.000. The story of the FRETILIN in those years, is a story of very young men who, in three years, went form vulgar student radicalism to extreme heights of daring, abnegation and tragedy.

Meanwhile, convoys of FRETILIN vehicles filled with armament, munitions and food had been climbing for some time the precarious roads into the mountains, headed for carefully built bases on the central regions.

The amphibious landing of the indonesian troops in Dili took place on December 7 and it was such a show of military incompetence it could probably have been resisted, had the east-timorese taken that option. Some parachutists were dropped in the sea and drowned due to the weight of the equipment. Others were dropped right in the middle of the retreating columns of the FALINTIL. They were unable to block the retreat, suffered heavy casualties and, on their way to Dili, came under the fire of their own companions. Military discipline collapsed and the soldiers went on a rampage, killing about 2000 civilians on the city that day, including APODETI supporters trying to salute them.

On December 8, the portuguese governor Lemos Pires and his staff sailed discretely from Atauro back to Portugal. But FRETILIN took as prisoners some portuguese (officers, priests, soldiers) and shot them all, when the indonesians invaded. Some witnesses claim that the head of lieutenant-colonel Maggiolo de Gouveia (the commander of the portuguese police and staunch UDT supporter) was spit on a stick.

The indonesians landed in Baucau on December 10 and, by April 1976, they had about 40.000 men on the island. But for two more years they have secured little more than a piece of the northern coast of East-Timor. The republic was alive - some 500.000 people lived under the authority - and could even make some trade with the indonesian generals, exchanging coffee for rice, sugar and medicines.

The program of FRETILIN called for the expropriation of the big land tenants, the inclusion of fertile non cultivated lands in a system of peasant cooperatives, participation of the population in the decisions at a local level. A very special emphasis was put on education. Many schools were built and a dynamic program of adult education was put in place, following the methods of the brazilian pedagogue Paulo Freire. A health system was built, using mostly traditional medicines extracted from local plants. The authority of the traditional chiefs (liurais), superstition and tribalism were combated. Corn, manioc and potatoes were adapted to cultivation in altitude. According to the account of captive father Leoneto do Rego, the alimentary and sanitary situation was satisfactory.

FRETILIN has managed to create and animate a powerful and popular mass movement. It has thus led the push for independence and the resistance to the occupation. It has done so under the banner of the maubere people. Maubere is a word in a local dialect (mabai) that means the common man. Maubere people is thus a kind of tautology but has functioned as a powerful concept in the shaping of the east-timorese national identity. It is also an ideologically charged expression for it depicts, by itself, the birth of a nation as a profound democratic revolution against the “notables” - the literate higher echelons of the former portuguese administration and most of the traditional tribal chiefs (liurais) - that constituted the backbone of the colonial establishment.

The republic was, of course, in mortal peril. The military doctrine of FRETILIN was a typically maoist protracted people's war. But most of the military cadre were formed in the professionalized and "apolitical" portuguese army. There was a shock of cultures. The military have resisted to obey orders from the political direction that they didn't understand, from their purely military angle. They were distrustful of the FRETILIN political commissars, and weren't too found of distributing weapons to the peasants.

The military impasse in East-Timor was an embarrassment for Jakarta. But they had no means to win the war conventionally. So they went to uncle Sam who was generous to them, furnishing them 13 counterinsurgency planes OV-10F "Bronco" (Rockwell International) and 16 A-4E Skyhawk (McDonnell-Douglas). In September 1977, Indonesia started a new campaign, designed to destroy the bases of FRETILIN and its capacity for producing food. They made daily sorties from the rebuilt airport of Baucau, attacking the villages and the cultures of rebel areas with 1000 pound bombs and chemical/biological agents (napalm, agent orange, etc.). Another 15 battalions (12.000 men) were called to conduct search and destroy missions. Later came the british Hawks. The higher echelons of the indonesian military were formed on counter-insurgency in the US by the International Military Education Program, one of its mass-murdering schools for foreign client-states. FRETILIN asked for support from the USSR, to no avail.

The areas under the control of the republic shrinked and its capacity to defend and feed its populations was put to test, as more and more people was seeking refuge in ever smaller and more vulnerable areas. The cultures were destroyed by napalm and defoliants. Between the indonesian-controlled areas and the rebel ones, a giant waste-land was created, with poisoned lands, destroyed villages and abandoned fields. All the population was considered enemy and the repression was barbarous and inexorable (murders, mutilations, violations, etc.).

The situation of the republic was becoming desperate and its leadership was subject to great strain. Xavier do Amaral, the party president was favorable to a deal and, attempted a coup and was arrested (September 7). A year later, abandoned by his escort, he was captured by the indonesians. He ended up in Bali as a servant (a sort of butler) of the indonesian general Dading Kalbuadi. He is probably still there.

Then there was the betrayal of Alarico Fernandes, the minister of Information. He used his powers of surveillance of the radio equipment to enter in intelligence with the indonesians, denouncing rebel positions. He convinced some commanders and regional political commissars to surrender and presented himself with them to the indonesians. Everybody was executed on the spot. Fernandes was exiled in the remote island of Sumba, after being forced to watch the violation of his wife and daughter.

The last refuge of the resistance was mount Matebian (the mountain of the soul in the tetum language). 2.700 m high, it is adored as the house of the spirits of the east-timorese ancestors (the Belu). It is a traditional place of shelter for the east-timorese in times of troubles. It has a dense vegetation, intersected by giant ravines. The larvae, the roots and the insects can serve as food. By October 17, the indonesians were all around the base of the hill where 160.000 fighters and civilians were trying to hide. Fierce battles occurred in October and November, where the indonesians have had about 3.000 casualties (in all 24 of occupation, the indonesian army may have lost as many as 16.000 men). Then saturation bombardments started. During the day, the east-timorese seeked shelter on caves, where many were buried alive by the bombs. On the open they were spread with napalm.

By December 4, the FALINTIL units had lost radio contact with one another and went on their own, through the dense forests. Food supplies were ending. The direction of the movement told the population it had no longer any means to protect them, exhorting them to go down hill and surrender. Many tears rolled by. The slopes were filled with unburied corpses. It was the end.

Meanwhile, Nicolau Lobato was persecuted by special airborne units. On December 31, he was cornered on mount Maubisse, 50 km to the south of Dili. After a six hours battle he was captured, mortally wounded in the stomach. He died in the helicopter, on the way to Dili. His mutilated corpse was shown to the indonesian Defense minister. The victory celebrations begun.

The populations, whose beautiful traditional houses - built over stakes, with straw roofs and fine wooden sculptures - had been systematically destroyed, were relocated in tin barrack camps, where over 200.000 died of hunger and disease during 1979. The scattered units of the resistance were eventually reorganized, in the National Conference of Mabai (1981), under the leadership of Xanana Gusmão. The strategy was now of totally mobile columns with no fixed bases. The political direction of the movement was assured by a Revolutionary Council of National Resistance (antecessor of today's CNRT) and opened to non-FRETILIN members. The movement lost its marxist-leninist identity and the experience of the Democratic Republic of East-Timor will probably not be revived soon. Its ideological legacy - with more moderate tones - seems to be now embodied by the Socialist Party of Timor (PST), led by Avelino da Silva.

There was a time (during the middle 80's) when everything seemed on track for integration. There was even a cease-fire (from March to August 1983), broken by the indonesians. The indonesian government started its policy of development (penbangunan) of the territory, building roads, schools and diverse civilian infrastructure. Ideologically, it has tried to use the catholic church (with some collaboration from pope Woytila) as a tool of resignation. Later this backfired spectacularly, as many young independentist activists have rallied to the church and transformed it into a force of resistance. Ironically, the catholic church (almost inexpressive during the times of portuguese colonialism) and the indonesian school system have been the breading grounds for the new wave of independentist activism, culminating in the massacre at the cemetery of Santa Cruz in 1991.

The problem is that there was no employment available for young east-timorese. All civil service employment and petty commerce was offered to transmigrates from other islands who were poured into the territory by the tens of thousands. The only "private sector" (so to speak) was a giant monopoly dominated by the Suharto family and its cronies in the armed forces, the infamous PT Batara Indra (coffee, marble, sandal). The land was expropriated without compensation by this conglomerate and its tenants expelled. East-Timor was urbanized (Dili went from 40.000 to 180.000 inhabitants in 20 years) with no prospects of a future for these uprooted masses.

Meanwhile, all East-Timor was a giant army garrison. Exactions of all kinds, extreme humiliation of the locals, arbitrary arrests, torture, murder of young men and the violation of women were everyday affairs. Xanana Gusmão's first wife has a child from repeated violations she was subjected to in prison. That was the fate of thousands of other east-timorese women. Main massacres: Areia Branca (1975), Quelicai (1979), Lacluta (1981), Kraras (1983), Santa Cruz (1991).

It was this reality of exclusion, brutalization and humiliation of the locals that developed the second generation of independentist activists. This was the indonesian "integrasi": a consistent strategy of intimidation, humiliation and obliteration of the identity of a people. If integration failed, it is surely the responsibility of the indonesians. After spending billions of dollars in this game, squeezed by the IMF, the indonesian ruling class just gave up. It agreed on the referendum and gave the "ungrateful" east-timorese one final blow on departure.

The east-timorese have won their freedom in a hard and protracted struggle, with the sacrifice of the blood of their best sons and daughters. Now that struggle continues for the achievement of full national independence and dignity, against the paternalistic rule of its new found well-wishers (UNTAET, Australia, U.S.), determined as they are to chain them again, now to the monstruous imperialist world system.


John G. Taylor, 'Indonesia's forgotten war';
José Ramos-Horta, 'Tomorrow in Dili';
Steve Cox, ‘Generations of Resistance’.




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