The Democratic Republic of East-Timor (1975-78)

João Paulo Monteiro jpmonteiro at
Sun Oct 24 16:44:39 MDT 1999

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

The East-Timorese FRETILIN was a late comer but very enthusiastic member
of this club. In an earlier post, I have made a brief account of the
last year of portuguese administration of East-Timor.
It was very closely influenced with the ups and downs of the
revolutionary process in Portugal. Indeed, its political cleavages had
clear expression in the civilian and military apparatus that ruled the

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 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

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

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.

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 cruisers were at bay. 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.

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

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. Another 15 battalions
(12.000 men) were called to conduct search and destroy missions.

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

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 some 300.000 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.

João Paulo Monteiro

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