East Timor: the secrets

As East Timor is baptised as the world’s 192nd nation, former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres speaks out, revealing the secrets behind the story of East Timor’s independence.

After the Portuguese Revolution on 25th April, 1974, a process of decolonisation was initiated, which culminated in the handing over of power to local political organisations in Portugal’s former colonies (Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Sao Tome and Principe Islands, Mozambique and East Timor). Goa, Daman and Diu had been annexed by the Indian Union in 1960.

Three political parties shared power in East Timor: FRETILIN, favouring an independent state, now a reality. This party was elected into government and its leader, Mari Alkatiri, is the country’s Prime Minister. UDT (Democratic Union) originally favoured joint government with Portugal but then adopted independence and thirdly, APODETI, a party sponsored by Indonesia, favoured the integration of East Timor into Indonesia.

In August 1975, a civil war broke out between the factions and FRETILIN declared the country’s independence on November 28th, 1975. Indonesia, supported by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, invaded the country on December 7th and on July 17th 1976, declared that East Timor had “decided to integrate” into Indonesia.

What followed were years of massacre, during which a third of the East Timorese population of 600,000, the Maubere people, were slaughtered by the Indonesian army and militia. Xanana Gusmao, the country’s first president, took to the hills and formed the FALINTIL (Armed Force for the National Freedom and Territorial integrity of Timor Loro Sae, East Timor).

Since 1976, Australia has twice recognised the Indonesian annexation of East Timor (1979 and 1985) despite the transmigration policy practised by Jakarta, in which the best lands in East Timor were expropriated and given to Javanese migrants. Australia signed contracts with Indonesia to exploit the oil and natural gas in the Timor Gap, which could be an important source of revenue for the fledgling nation.

The story of the atrocities in East Timor was kept from the world’s eyes despite constant pleas from Portugal but unfortunately for Indonesia, the massacre at the cemetery of Santa Cruz on 12th November, 1991, was filmed by a foreign journalist, setting in motion the mechanisms through which the annexed province was to reach nationhood. 200 people were killed and the Indonesian armed forces tried to cover up the event.

By the time Xanana Gusmao was captured and imprisoned by the Indonesian armed forces in 1992 and Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo and Foreign Spokesperson Jose Ramos-Horta had been made Nobel peace Laureates in 1996, the cause was won, for the UNO had stipulated that a free referendum was to take place in August 1999. The people of east Timor voted overwhelmingly for an independent state, only for the Indonesian army to send marauding bands of assassins to carry out massacres.

As the people fled to the hills, and the international community looked away conveniently, Antonio Guterres, the Portuguese Prime Minister at the time, told president Clinton that Portugal would withdraw its forces from the Balkans peace missions (NATO and UNO) if nothing was done to stop the killing. Antonio Guterres also threatened to resign from his post as Prime Minister. At the time, only two people knew of Guterres’ conversation with Bill Clinton, the President of Portugal (Jorge Sampaio) and the Foreign Minister (Jaime Gama). The telephone conversation occurred on the same day that the Portuguese nation stopped as its population formed a giant human chain in support of the people of Timor and vigils were set up, day and night, at the UN headquarters and the US Embassy, these becoming noisy demonstrations at times.

Guterres describes as his “worst moment” that “when, I believe, the US Defence Secretary stated that East Timor was not a priority for US external policy”. Pentagon and White House sources at the time were quoted as saying that the USA’s relationship with Indonesia was far more important than the question of East Timor. Indeed, the Indonesian armed forces were trained and equipped by the USA and the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, General Wiranto, had strong links with the CIA, with whom he had regular meetings.

Portugal’s next step would be to call an international press conference, presenting the facts on East Timor and explaining why it was walking out of international peace-keeping missions, which would have been extremely embarrassing to the United States.

Guterres asked his friend Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, to use his influence in Washington and shortly afterwards, the USA instructed Indonesia to abide by the UNO deliberations.

Today, the people of East Timor finish their Independence Day celebrations after the new country was born on 19th May but it is thanks to the tireless efforts of thousands of anonymous heroes that the country exists at all, not thanks to the international community, more interested in oil, arms and gas.


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