Educating East Timor’s younger generations about the struggles that started in 1975 as a precursor to self-determination is vital to understanding the nation’s independence.
On 28 November 1975, East Timorese leaders under the leadership of the late Francisco Xavier do Amaral—the first President of the Democratic Republic of East Timor—declared the nation’s independence, freeing it from colonialism and imperialism.
The word ‘imperialism’ was very much in tune with the political context at the time as US Marines had just left Vietnam, having been beaten by the Vietnamese Communist Army — composed of farmers and women in the countryside and led by legendary guerrilla leader, Ho Chi Minh.
The same political metaphor also inflamed national liberation movements in former Portuguese colonies on the African continent including Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands. Those countries won and secured their independence through armed struggle against their colonial masters.
According to historical sources, when Xavier do Amaral was reading aloud the declaration of independence the border incursion by the Indonesian military and their proxies was already in motion. Some of the new cabinet members that had been nominated by Xavier do Amaral and the Central Committee of Fretilin (the Revolutionary Front for and Independent East Timor) were still engaged in bitter gun battles in the border area. In some ways, therefore, nominating who got the top job was really out of their control.
A week after the unilateral declaration of independence, on 7 December 1975, the Indonesian military launched a large-scale military invasion from offshore, onshore and the air. It took a few months for Indonesian soldiers to get rid of Fretilin forces in the Dili mainland. They engaged in long and cruel fighting against the civilian population as well as the Fretilin regular army. Roger East, an Australian journalist, the poet Francisco Borja da Costa and Isabel Lobato, the wife of Freitlin President Nicolao Lobato, were shot and killed on Dili’s wharf on the first day of the invasion.
With modern armouries, mostly supplied by the US and UK governments, the Indonesian military had high expectations. They meant to conquer and occupy the tiny island in less than 24 hours, Benny Mordani, the chief architect of the invasion, stated. More than two decades later, Timorese people were to joke that “perhaps 24 hours is another word for 24 years.”
The Fretilin forces, along with the vast majority of people, made their way to the mountain and rainforest areas in the countryside. In the mountains of Ramelau, Cablaki and Matebean they formed their stronghold, putting the population at the centre of the complex to carry out agricultural production, literacy programs, political education and run cooperatives. The armed wing provided protection for the population when deemed necessary.
From 1975 to the 1980s, Fretilin soldiers kept their stronghold in the mountains and some districts. They called their headquarters ‘Zona Libertadas’ or Liberated Zone. But the good times finally came to an end when Nicolao Lobato, the Supreme Commander of the Fretilin forces and Xavier do Amaral’s successor, was killed in December 1978. Without their charismatic leader, the Fretilin forces were at a low ebb.
After Xanana Gusmao was elected to replace Nicolao Lobato he began to reorganise the resistance movements. He travelled around the country holding in-depth discussions and consultations with traditional elders, former guerrilla fighters and common people. There was only one answer he obtained from them at the time: “If you go up to the mountain, we will do the same. If you going down, we will follow you.” Having secured their support, Xanana decided to continue to resist Timor-Leste’s Indonesian military rulers.
Xanana and his fellow resistance leaders canvassed a broad range of literature on armed insurrection in other parts of the world. From the armed struggle in Cuba under the leadership of Fidel Castro and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, to the Long March in China under Mao Zedong, Sandero Luminoso (Shining Path) in Peru, the Vietnamese people’s war of liberation under Ho Chi Minh and Giap, as well as the colonial wars in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau.
Eventually, they arrived at the notion that none of those experience and practices could apply to the East Timor context at the time. East Timor is part of a tiny island surrounded by two giant neighbours, Indonesia and Australia, who became strong allies with the latter providing military assistance to the Indonesian military.
In the 1980s, Indonesia’s military changed their policy, and tried to wipe out the resistance in one fell swoop. The ‘fence of legs’ operation was put into place for this purpose. Conscripts were forced to form ‘human chains’ to smoke out the guerrilla fighters from their hideouts, while military and paramilitary groups stood guard to keep pushing them forward.
The death toll from ‘fence of legs’ was heaviest on the unarmed civilian conscripts rather than the military. Agricultural production had also been abandoned and subsequently plummeted due to the operation, leading to famine and malnourishment plaguing almost every village. Hundreds of civilians were killed due to ‘collateral damage’, which was mostly caused by the Indonesian Armed Forces.
Some senior leaders of the resistance movements were able to survive the ‘fence of legs’ operation. Among them were Xanana Gusmao, Lere Anan Timor, Taur Matan Ruak and David Alex. The structure of kinship and the strong bonds between the guerrilla and resistance movements played a pivotal role at this stage. Members of the guerrilla movements could communicate easily with civilian populations from the same clan, allowing them to cross the human chains and take refuge in the villages.
From the 1980s onwards, the resistance suffered enormous casualties. Almost 80 per cent of their senior leaders were caught by the Indonesian army and vanished or were sent to prison either on Atauro Island or in Indonesia.
Xanana split his force into small and mobile guerrilla units with no permanent military base – well-known in Cuba as foco. The force, now scattered, was able to pose a serious military challenge to the Indonesians. From 1980 to 1982, they ambushed the Indonesian military at different places, captured some weapons and ran to the mountains. By 1983, Indonesian armed forces were on the cliff’s edge. The same year, they agreed to the temporary ceasefire proposed by Xanana Gusmao.
Xanana and his fellows took advantage of the temporary ceasefire, linking up the clandestine network, allowing comrades and soldiers to undergo health treatment in town and absorbing information on enemy positions and their potential threat.
Even though, in terms of numbers, Fretilin forces had been whittled down due to Indonesia military offensives, they were able to elicit diplomatic support and use the well-established clandestine network throughout the country.
Clandestine movements continued to play a major role throughout the 1980s until 1999 when the popular vote on self-determination was held under the auspices of the United Nations.
But how does the young generation of Timorese remember 28 November 1975? For the older and mid-generations, this date marked the beginning of East Timor’s long struggle against Indonesian military occupation. The progenitors of the declaration of independence have their own political reason. “If we have to fight, we should fight and die for a cause. The Declaration of Independence was our historical hallmark,” Xavier do Amaral argued.
Frankly speaking, the events beginning on 28 of November 1975 are less well-known. For the young generation, those born in the 1980s and 1990s, East Timor gained its independence in 1999. The main task is explaining to them that these two events went hand in hand.
The challenge ahead for the next generation of historians is to put the record straight
Ivo Mateus Goncalves is an independent researcher based in Dili, East Timor.