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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol. 38 No. 22. September 11, 1975

East Timor: Independence still a long way off

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East Timor: Independence still a long way off

The Portuguese colony of East Timor has received much press coverage in this country as a result of the civil war between Fretilin (Revolutionary Front for the Independence of East Timor) and UDT (Timor Democratic Union) which broke out as a result of a coup by the UDT.

A previous article in Salient 17 described the appalling poverty and backwardness of the country. Timorese subsist on the lowest per capita income in the whole of South-East Asia. The incidence of illiteracy at the time of the April 1974 coup in Portugal was estimated at 90%. Despite a strong literacy campaign being run by Fretilin based on the method of Paulo Friere the incidence of illiteracy is relatively unchanged today

While the fascists held power in Portugal, political discussion and organisation was not possible in East Timor. The majority of the people received their political awakening with the April coup. Now, just eighteen months later they are being asked to take sides in a civil war. What is more the civil war is between two parties who were recently in alliance with each other for the purposes of negotiating with the Portuguese.

Fretilin and UDT

If this united front had kept together it would have formed the basis for a peaceful transition to an independent East Timor. What was the nature of these two groups.

Fretilin s first anniversary was celebrated on May 20 by an estimated 15,000 supporters who rallied in the main square of the capital, Dili

Fretilin s first anniversary was celebrated on May 20 by an estimated 15,000 supporters who rallied in the main square of the capital, Dili

First, UDT. UDT receives its main support from the Portuguese community and the Timorese who were most closely associated with the previous Portuguese regime. Stephen Hoadley in The Dominion identified these groups as "the higher civil servants, the native chiefs who serve as petty territorial officers, villagers who regard the Portuguese flag as a mystical symbol, (and) some Chinese businessmen". UDT originally had a platform of federation with Portugal. Its support has varied between 10% and 15% of the population. It is in no way radical, nor can it really be said to be anti-colonial when its major supporters come from those who benefited in one way or another from colonialism.

Second, Fretilin. Fretilin grew out of a radical grouping of lower civil servants, teachers, students (some of whom were educated overseas) and some educated tribal chieftains. This grouping was responsible for organising the first strike in East Timor's history just after the Portuguese coup. Its formation came fairly late after the April coup but it came up with the most far-ranging and radical policy of any of the political parties. This policy was geared towards achieving Fretilin's main aim, that of building an independent, self-reliant, East Timor. At first it demanded independence Now'. The Fretilin policy has gained incredible support among the East Timorese people (over 80% support Fretilin). In particular support from recent migrants from the country areas to the northern towns and the tribal chieftains (who are still the authority figures in the countryside) helps ensure a firm mass base. Fretilin has seen the Armed Forces Movement as little different from the old fascist regime and has had little to do with the Portuguese.

Men and women of the United Democratic Party's militia stand guard at a strategic point in Dili, capital of Portuguese East Timor.

Men and women of the United Democratic Party's militia stand guard at a strategic point in Dili, capital of Portuguese East Timor.

Portugal and decolonisation

While Fretilin has had a somewhat cold attitude to the military regime in Lisbon and the local representatives of the Portuguese government (many of whom are unchanged from the old regime) UDT has been remarkably warm to the Portuguese representatives in East Timor. As a result of these differing stands UDT was able to gain support among local Portuguese administrators for its coup which went off with little bother at the start of August.

Also important to note when analysing the two parties are their changing attitudes towards decolonisation. Fretilin originally demanded independence Now' while UDT was arguing for continued union with Portugal. By the beginning of this year UDT and Fretilin were both arguing for a continued union for at least 3 - 5 years leading to independence.

What had happened was that by the start of this year Fretilin's leadership had recognised that for East Timor to be viable as an independent state it needed a reasonably long period of decolonisation during which the infrastructure of a self-reliant economy could be laid. Also preying on the minds of the Fretilin leaders was the threat of Indonesia. A weak state formed too early would be no more than an invitation to an Indonesian intervention. UDT by this time also had second thoughts when they realised that the overwhelming majority of East Timorese wanted true independence.

On the basis of their agreement on the question of decolonisation the two parties formed an alliance in January for the purpose of negotiation with the Portuguese. They claimed the sole right to speak for East Timor.

Unholy alliance

However the coalition did not last past April when UDT pulled out. Just before this on a trip to Australia UDT leaders had been told by the Australian Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO) to pull out of the coalition and to form an anti-communist alliance with Apodeti. (The third party in East Timor, Apodeti is financed and supported by Indonesia. It has never had any support among the East Timorese for its policy of amalgamation with Indonesia.) Australia's policy had been previously made clear by Cough Whitlam who intimated that Australia would not act against an Indonesian takeover. This was in response to repeated statements by Indonesia that it would not tolerate a left-wing regime on its border.

In June the UDT leaders went on a trip to Jakarta. No one is quite sure what happened there but in the same month UDT leaders had talks with Apodeti. It appears now that UDT got an Indonesian o.k. for their planned coup and the possible guarantee of armed intervention to crush Fretilin opposition to the coup. In return UDT would have promised a nonradical and stable (with Fretilin smashed) government UDT might have also hinted at a possible merger with Indonesia with East Timor occupying the position of an autonomous or semi-autonomous region. However, this is still conjecture although after the current fighting started Indonesia made continual offers to send in a one-nation 'peacekeeping' force to stop the fighting. These offers were wisely refused by the Portuguese.

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UDT's reasons for pulling out of the coalition and planning the coup are not quite clear. It appears that they believed that in a coalition with Fretilin they would always be the minor partner and that eventually Fretilin would enact their far-reaching social programme. Also UDT looked with apprehension at the rapidly changing events in Portugal. They could well have decided that Indonesia would serve as a more stable colonial master. Also much pressure was no doubt brought to bear on the UDT leaders in their visits to Jakarta and Canberra to take the course of action that they did. One of the UDT leaders openly admitted that he had been bribed by the Indonesians.

The coup

At the beginning of August UDT carried out its coup. Under the facetious slogan of independence Now' UDT took over many of the important buildings and institutions in the capital, Dili. In the early stages they appeared to have a monopoly of arms.

The only arms in East Timor were those belonging to the Portuguese armed forces. These troops were mainly local conscripts who normally support Fretilin. Neither of the two parties was known to possess arms. UDT gained its arms by possibly two methods First, it had some support among the conscripts. The demand of independence Now' may well have won them some supporters from Fretilin. Also it is likely that UDT was receiving arms shipments from Australian right-wingers.

However, just as many, if not more, of the local conscripts went over with their arms to Fretilin. In addition Fretilin is unchallenged in its 'control' of the countryside where most East Timorese live. In the cities where there were more contacts with the Portuguese UDT has some strength but here as well Fretilin has almost unqualified support from the workers and lower middle classes. Without popular support UDT cannot hope to win the civil war.

UDT's only hope is armed intervention by Indonesia, as latest reports indicate that Fretilin has control of almost the whole of the country and is beginning to consolidate its position.

The future

While a Fretilin victory seems assured. East Timor faces a difficult period ahead. The civil war has weakened the country considerably and many of the middle classes necessary to setting up an Independent economy have fled independence in the present circumstances appears unfeasible without massive aid.

Indonesia, which has always been the main threat to an independent East Timor, has indicated that it will not 'tolerate' an East Timor led by Fretilin. Last Sunday Indonesian forces in West Timor were placed on alert and Indonesian warships were in positions off the coast of East Timor. The stage seemed set for Indonesian intervention.

However, in a statement on Monday, Fretilin Secretary-General, Mr Jose Ramos Horta said that he had met with the Indonesian ambassador to Australia and that he was "quite confident we have no worries from Indonesia" He went on to say that Fretilin was quite happy for East-Timor to remain under the Portuguese flag and saw independence as coming in about 3 years.

In New Zealand we can play an important role by demanding that the Labour Government oppose any Indonesian intervention in East Timor. Our close economic and political ties with the fascist regime in Indonesia must not blind the government to Jakarta's colonialist designs on East Timor. Nor can our government forget that the Whitlam government in Canberra is backing an Indonesian takeover.

Despite any assurances the Indonesian ambassador to Australia may have given Fretilin the official attitude of the Indonesian government is still to oppose any settlement for East Timor arranged solely between Fretilin and the Portuguese (even, one assumes, [unclear: if] Fretilin controls the whole of East Timor) and to also oppose any left-wing regime on its borders.

East Timor's future is important to us because Indonesian intervention will lead to a mini-Vietnam 300 miles north of Darwin. In a statement two weeks' ago Mr Rowling said he was encouraged by the restraint the Indonesians had shown by not intervening and by the possibility that the situation would settle down and lead to self-determination by the people. The Labour Government needs to go further than this. It must state its unequivocal opposition to an Indonesian takover and it should offer generous assisstance to the people of East Timor both before and after independence.