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East Timor's recalcitrant hero

By Peter Coates - posted Monday, 21 June 2010


Australia's relations with East Timor have always been tense and complex but this year things have rapidly become worse. East Timor Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao’s recent statements encapsulate the long term and short term problems, which include the standoff with Australia's Woodside Petroleum and Chinese patrol boats now based in our near north. Eleven years on from the Indonesian devastation of 1999 East Timor is still receiving massive western support. Growth is frustratingly slow and assistance from a rising China appears to have increasing appeal in Dili.

Xanana Gusmao's long career has made him more passionate than the comfortable politicians we tolerate in Australia. He has been a national hero for many years. Gusmao led the insurgent war of independence. Following the 1975 Indonesian invasion of East Timor the most active East Timorese independence faction, Fretilin/Falintil was forced to flee Dili and take to the hills. Gusmao gradually rose to the top of Falintil - in theory the military wing of Fretilin.

Gusmao was arguably a Maoist communist from 1975 to the mid 1980s like most of the Fretilin/Falintil leadership in those years (described here (PDF 218KB) on pages 209 to 219). The communist beginnings of most of the East Timorese independence movement appear to have been largely airbrushed from English speaking history: in their place Gusmao and current President Jose Ramos-Horta have always been, at heart, true US style democrats.

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This photo is of a Falintil leadership meeting (circa 1976). At left, next to his M16 with the homemade sling, is Gusmao.

While Indonesian regular army troops pursued them for years an important function of Falintil was to remain in contact with the outside world to tell of the Indonesian atrocities. Falintil did that with a very old, heavy, radio. The rebel radio probably operated safely distant from the Falintil leadership (say 1 kilometre away) so as not to draw the radio-location sensors of the Indonesian Army (and Air Force) onto these leaders.

Broadcasts describing the Indonesian mass murders reached people who deeply cared in Australia. These "activists" transcribed the radio messages for distribution to East Timorese support groups throughout the world. If lightly organised civilian activists were taking notice, then, with a high degree of likelihood, heavily organised operators at military listening stations also transcribed the messages (sometimes with individual heartbreak), then summarised the messages, for highly classified distribution to governments. Perhaps Australia via an Australian Navy/Defence Signals Directorate listening post in the Northern Territory knew the most about the Indonesian holocaust in East Timor as it was happening - for years.

But Australia and the US decided, on balance, to stand by the Indonesian government of General Suharto, because he was "anti-communist" - a calling card considered more important than the lives of innocents - until 1999. The US had concluded that a leftwing independent East Timor would be too much like another Cuba to risk independence. In the meantime almost all of the Fretilin/Falintil leaders were killed or captured then tortured to death.

Below is an account of the use of the rebel radio. The article is from the Global Post (founded in Boston, USA):

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"East Timor, 1970s-1980s - The 100 lbs. tweet"

... East Timor’s cause was the longest of long shots. A small, poor and remote dot on the Indonesian archipelago, it was struggling for independence from Jakarta’s rule. It was surrounded on all sides by its foe, or by ocean. Cold War administrations in Washington opposed its cause and equipped Indonesia with fighter jets [actually propeller driven OV-10 Broncos] to keep the territory from turning communist.

... Their audience was a small group of Australian supporters, who set up a large antenna in the outback to receive the faint, crackly signal. (Theirs, too, was a dangerous game [perhaps a slight exaggeration?], as the Australian government regarded the group as communist supporters). The message would then be encoded and sent by mail or phone to East Timor’s expat supporters in the West [including Kirsty Sword who eventually married Gusmao] ...

The inability of China or the Soviets to give effective military assistance to the Fretilin/Falintil insurgents left these East Timorese communists high and dry. They were at the mercy of the Indonesians, who didn't show much mercy.

According to Loro Horta, a scholar and the son of East Timor's President Jose Ramos-Horta, China did, in fact, attempt to send a massive arms shipment to East Timor in 1975 to help East Timor's out-classed army fight the Indonesian invaders. However, Australian warships apparently assisted the Indonesian Navy in blocking the shipment - thus adding to the suffering.

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About the Author

Peter Coates has been writing articles on military, security and international relations issues since 2006. In 2014 he completed a Masterís Degree in International Relations, with a high distinction average. His website is Submarine Matters.

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