Online: Timor International Solidarity Archive

8 September 2020

There are now several online collections of Timor-Leste archival records for the years 1974-1999. We introduce here the most recent of the resources, David Webster’s Timor International Solidarity Archive. While still developing, it promises to be a ‘go-to’ platform for placing and accessing worldwide archives on Timor and an example for Timor-Leste archival institutions.

The Timor International Solidarity Archive (TiSA) provides online access to digital copies of Timor solidarity movement records, 1975-1999. TiSA is the initiative of the Canadian Timor activist and academic historian, David Webster.

TiSA is the first collection of Timor archives to be delivered online using an archives-specific database system. (1) As the database grows, it will be a useful example for Timor-Leste’s developing archival institutions as they consider collection management and online access systems.

Top ten collections by numbers of digitised items online.

Currently the database lists over 60 international solidarity groups and individuals who created Timor materials in the occupation years. The majority of groups represented to date are from various European countries, north America and Australia.

There are currently about a thousand items listed in 34 collections, most of which include digital copies. An ‘item’ can be a single document, such as a letter or photograph, or can contain many separate documents.

Within each collection, the items are generally arranged into one or more ‘series’ or groups: Documents, publications, photographs, newsletters and newspaper clippings. TiSA especially has a strong and growing online collection of solidarity newsletters.

The digital copies are currently restricted to documents and photographs. Documentary materials are delivered in PDF format; some of them are text searchable. The copies are created through scanning or direct photography. The quality of some of the photographed items is at the lower-end, but entirely sufficient.

Some Highlights
TiSA has a strong record set from the Canadian ETAN (East Timor Alert Network) and 1990s news compilations from the USA’s ETAN (East Timor Action Network). Less well-known to the post Santa-Cruz Massacre generation of activists is the Timor work of early US activists such as Michael Chamberlain and Arnold Kohen.

One surprising entry in TiSA is the Asian-African Conference Bulletin, published by Indonesia’s Department of Foreign Affairs in 1955, reporting in English on the historic Bandung Conference of non-aligned countries. While containing no Timor content, it is included for research on decolonisation.

Navigating and Searching
Any exploration of archives databases is made easier if users understand the different levels of archival description. TiSA uses the most common basic archival hierarchy: Collection > Series > File > Item. This means that a given collection is made up of a number of groups (‘Series’). Each Series contains one or more ‘Files’ and each File can contain one or more ‘Items’. Every entry in TiSA  includes information about its place in that hierarchy.

The opening TiSA screen invites browsing in a number of ways, the top three ways being ‘archival descriptions’ (data on all description levels), ‘collections’ (actually provides the names of ‘creators’ (2)) and archival institutions (where the original archives are held). This is a good way to get a feel for the range of material in the database.

A simple search box at the top of the TiSA screen will find a search term wherever that term is in the database. As the database grows, this method may produce too many results for certain common terms. Generally, we find it is well worth the time to learn to use the advanced search screen to help keep search results more specific.

CHART comments
TiSA has the potential to set the standard for present and future online access to Timor archives. Its value will be greatly enhanced by contributions of material from solidarity groups around the world. Some CHART-created materials are accessible through TiSA; more contributions to come in the near future.

From an end-user point of view, TiSA might be improved by development of a front page which includes the best aspects of the browse function and the advanced search screen. Missing from TiSA, and all but one of the available online databases, is a set of subject headings to use in searches. (3)

In the meantime, it might be useful for end-users to be provided with a basic online guide to the structure of the data and methods for browsing and searching. The search results will be further enhanced by ensuring that key data elements like description levels and creators are consistently entered into the database.

With the exception of the Max Stahl Audiovisual Archive with its highly specialised database, Timor-Leste archives do not yet appear to have adopted archives-specific systems to manage and provide access to their collections. At least one Timor-Leste archival institution is seeing TiSA as a potential model for its own archives management system. We hope other institutions will follow this example.

[See also a Tetum-language version of this article]


(1) Access to Memory (AtoM) is an open-source free-to-download database system started by the International Council of Archives (ICA) to encourage the use of archival description procedures in small-to-medium size institutions. It is currently being maintained and improved by a Canadian company, Artefactual Systems. AtoM is used in a wide range of institutions internationally – especially in English and Portuguese-speaking countries.

(2) This ‘problem’ is too complicated to discuss here. Suffice to say, we would expect a Browse option called ‘Collections’ to list data with that particular ‘level’ of description. ‘Creator’ is not a level of description, it is a so-called ‘authority record’ (names of people, organisations etc) which can be linked to archival descriptions of any level.

(3) See brief discussion of subject headings in CHART’s 2013 article about CIDAC’s Timor Online resource.

Acknowledgement: CHART provided some early guidance on the development of TiSA. Many thanks to David Webster for the opportunity and for permissions to ‘look behind the scenes’ at the TiSA/AtoM setup.

Access to National Archives: The Kim McGrath case

23 July 2020

Since 2013, researcher and author Kim McGrath* has sought direct access to Australian government archives on 1970s Australia-Indonesia seabed boundary negotiations over the Timor Sea. While many files are now available for study, the National Archives refused access to a significant volume of material in some of those files. Australia’s Administrative Appeals Tribunal recently confirmed the National Archives’ decisions to refuse access to the redacted materials.

We explore here the nature of the files sought by McGrath, the reasons why access was refused to some material and why we feel the Tribunal process was unfair.

Heavily redacted pages from a 1979 file on Australia-Indonesia Timor seabed boundary negotiations. [Source: NAA A1828 1733/3/2 Part 8]

The National Archives of Australia (NAA) currently holds over 2,000 folders of Australian Government records about Timor-Leste for the years 1974-1999. (1)  The many thousands of individual documents in the folders are an irreplaceable research record of historical Australian government policy and actions on Timor. Some of the documents also provide some unique insights into Indonesian government policies, events on the ground in Timor itself, and the work of solidarity activists in Australia.

Roughly 1,000 folders are immediately available to researchers. Half of these folders are fully open to researchers but the other half have parts of them kept secret. (2)

Most of these folders can only be seen by visiting NAA in Canberra. About 15% of the folders can be viewed online.

To see the digitised folders, click on the ‘digital item’ icon in these two lists of ‘Timor’ items at NAA:
(i) Fully ‘Open’ folders
(ii) ‘Open with exception’ folders (partly-secret or redacted text).

Researchers can apply to Australia’s Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) for access to the secret/redacted texts. However, as Kim McGrath found in her appeal, the odds are stacked against success.

Timor Gap folders
Australian government records are fundamental to Kim McGrath’s doctoral-candidate research on Indonesia-Australia seabed boundary negotiations in the 1970s. These Australian records provide a deep insight into Australia’s and Indonesia’s past and present policies and actions on the Timor Gap.

See this list for an indication of the number and range of Timor seabed-related folders held by NAA.

While McGrath was able to access some folders with no significant restrictions, NAA decided that another 24 folders could only be accessed after extensive redactions. We have created a modified version of McGrath’s list of files she submitted to the AAT to challenge NAA’s redactions. The list includes McGrath’s summary of the important content of each folder and the details of NAA’s restricted-access decisions.

Only two of the 24 folders have been digitised and made available through NAA’s online database:
(i) January 1978 cabinet papers on Australia’s de facto recognition of the Indonesian takeover (partly redacted);
(ii) January 1979 Australia-Indonesia Timor Gap talks (heavily redacted).

A long road to the AAT decision
Between July 2013 and June 2014 Kim McGrath applied to NAA for access to the folders. NAA failed to make an access decision for most of the files within the mandatory 90-day period, effectively denying her access to the folders. McGrath then applied to the AAT in March and October 2014 for a review of NAA’s (non-)decisions.

The formal Tribunal hearing was not held until May 2018, almost five years after her first application to the AAT. In the interim, NAA completed its examination of the folders and had largely finalised its access decisions by September 2016.

McGrath then had to wait a further two years after the 2018 Tribunal hearing before the AAT judgement was delivered on 9 June 2020.

The Tribunal decision
The Tribunal endorsed NAA’s redactions of the folders. The Tribunal accepted NAA’s opinion that some material could not be seen because it “could reasonably be expected to cause damage” to Australia’s security or international relations. (3)

McGrath’s arguments included that some of the material could be released because the content was no longer sensitive or because similar material in other NAA folders had already been released.

NAA’s key witness was Greg French, a one-time legal expert within the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT) and now Australia’s Ambassador to Italy. French examined the 24 folders and concluded that release of the redacted material “could damage” Australia’s relations with Timor-Leste and “was very likely to damage” Australia’s relations with Indonesia.

French explained his reasons for this conclusion – but only in a closed session of the Tribunal hearing. Neither Kim McGrath nor her lawyers were permitted to hear French’s reasoning nor cross-examine him or other NAA witnesses in the closed session.

CHART Comment
The time taken for the AAT to consider Kim McGrath’s challenge to NAA’s access decisions is already a clear injustice. More generally, such a delay would discourage others from taking the same course of action to challenge NAA’s access decisions.

While the NAA has to defend itself at the AAT, it is clear that NAA actually depends on DFAT to decide in the first place what should be redacted from DFAT documents now in the National Archive. No surprise, then, that an expert witness who is himself a DFAT officer would affirm and support DFAT opinion given to NAA.

The lack of independence implied in such a witness testimony is bad enough. The inability of an applicant like Kim McGrath to challenge witness testimony given in a closed court adds to the unfairness of the whole process.

Relevance for Timor-Leste
The Australian national archives system has much to recommend it. But the access appeals procedures are far from perfect, as the Kim McGrath case demonstrates. Perhaps Timor-Leste can devise a system which shows a better way.

Timor-Leste has an ever-growing archival heritage. Some 1974-1999 materials are still held privately but increasing volumes are kept in at least four archival institutions. Other materials can be found outside Timor.

Missing from Timor-Leste’s archival world are formal laws to protect but also encourage access to that archival heritage. Various draft laws have existed since at least 2003 but none have made it into formal Law.

Hopefully Timor-Leste’s civil society will have a chance to contribute to the drafting of national laws on archives before they are legislated. And hopefully those laws will make clear what can and cannot be seen by Timor’s citizens, the reasons for any restrictions and a fair and efficient mechanism for challenging access decisions that seem questionable.



* Kim McGrath is a long-time researcher/analyst, consultant and advisor on governance, policy development and other matters to governments, private companies, universities and not-for-profits. Since 2009 she has researched the 1970s Australia-Indonesia seabed boundary negotiations, out of which arose her popular 2017 book, Crossing the Line: Australia’s Secret History in the Timor Sea. Her doctoral studies are entitled Alternative histories – Australia’s Timor Sea energy diplomacy in the 1960s and 1970s. She recently wrote in the Foreign Affairs journal on the 2004 ASIS spying scandal in Timor and its ongoing aftermath. See an edited extract in the 12 July 2020 Guardian newspaper.

Many thanks to Kim McGrath for sharing with CHART an account of her NAA/AAT experience and some associated documents.

(1)  Almost 2700 records can be found in NAA’s public online database using the simple search term “timor’ in the date range 1974-1999. A further search, excluding photographs and audio-visual formats, shows there are 2056 ‘paper file & document’ records.

(2) Of the 2056 folders, 519 are ‘Open’; 479 are ‘Open with exception’ (ie accessible but with secret pages removed and/or redacted text); 82 are ‘Closed’ (not available for access). Another 976 folders are classified as ‘Not yet examined’ (no researcher has yet asked for access).

(3) This is the most common reason for redactions in hundreds of Timor folders at NAA. Documents are exempt from access if they match any one of a range of conditions described in the Australia’s archives law.

Further information

Media items on the Tribunal decision: The Guardian.

Full text of the AAT Decision McGrath & National Archives of Australia.

CHART articles on Clinton Fernandes’ successful 2011 AAT appeal and his less successful 2014 AAT appeal.

Operation Skylight, 1978: Unresolved questions

26 June 2020

The still-sensitive historical topic of the 1978  ‘Operation Skylight’ has been a recent focus of public debate in Timor-Leste. We provide here a small sample of surviving records from the period and summarise what we know (and don’t know) about the 1978 events.

There is clearly a need to uncover more sources of information about Operation Skylight and related events. Only then will it be possible to properly study those events

Such study may not resolve some difficult questions. But it will get us much closer to understanding the whole story at that time. It should also help us to better understand the roles of individuals in the high-pressure 1978 environment of sharp military conflict, internal divisions and general human catastrophe.

Examination of any particular historical event must take account of the time and circumstance in which it occurred.

The whole of 1978 in Timor can be generally described as a period of intensified Indonesian military actions to break the Fretilin-led armed resistance control of much of the countryside and population. The humanitarian effect of these operations was increasingly large numbers of East Timorese on the run and starved of food supplies, ultimately resulting in widespread famine and death (1).

The pressure of Indonesian military actions was also undoubtedly responsible for widening the divisions within the organised resistance. Divisions over political orientation and military strategy were clearly evident at the time of the expulsion of Xavier do Amaral from Fretilin in late 1977. Subsequent reports from 1977 and through 1978 tell of expulsions, imprisonment and extra-judicial executions of ‘traitors’.

It is in this context we should try to understand Operation Skylight in the second half of 1978.

Operation Skylight – What was it?

There are informed but differing views on what ‘Skylight’ actually was.

At the time of the events it was believed to be a creation of Alarico Fernandes and his associates to eliminate key Fretilin leaders including Nicolau Lobato (2). Radio messages sent by Alarico Fernandes from late September 1978 identify these plans under the term ‘Operation Skylight’.

Informed later analysts described Skylight as an Indonesian military/intelligence operation, started in mid-1978 under General Yusuf, to achieve surrender or elimination of the Fretilin leadership (3). The authoritative 2005 Chega! report also adopts this understanding of the term but acknowledges Xanana Gusmao’s alternative description of Alarico’s actions as the Skylight ‘Movement’ (4).

The ‘Saturno’ messages

Starting in late September and through October 1978, Alarico Fernandes sent out a series of coded radio messages. These messages were issued in the name of ‘Saturno’.

The messages were received, recorded and transcribed by a group of Australian activists based in Sydney and Darwin (see our 2016 backgrounder on Resistance Radio). The text was then telexed to Fretilin’s external delegation for decoding.

The messages were kept secret until Fernandes’ surrender to Indonesia became public in early December. The external delegation condemned Fernandes’ actions but did not release the full text of the messages at the time. A summary of their content and some major extracts were published in English in the Fretilin-aligned Australian solidarity periodical, East Timor News. The messages outline Operation Skylight as a plan to cooperate with Indonesian military forces to eliminate Nicolau Lobato and a number of other named members of the Fretilin Central Committee (5).

Another Australian activist in Darwin, Rob Wesley-Smith, regularly monitored radio transmissions from Timor and kept recordings of some of the ‘Saturno’ messages. We provide here a sample of his transcription of one of the coded Saturno messages (click on image at left to read the message) and some short audio samples from the final days of radio contact.

The audio segments are: (1) Coded message read by Alarico Fernandes; (2) An awkward two-way exchange between Fernandes and an Australian radio operator in Darwin; (3) Rogerio Lobato sending a repeated message to (unsuccesfully) re-establish radio contact with Timor. 02:57. Source: Rob Wesley-Smith (published here with his permission).

Death of Nicolau Lobato, 31 December 1978

It is commonly believed that Alarico Fernandes directly assisted the Indonesian military operation to find and kill Nicolau Lobato. Strangely though, this was not claimed to be the case at the time.

Our best English-language source on these events at the time is the late Denis Freney‘s articles in East Timor News. Denis (1936-1995) was very close politically to Fretilin/RDTL external delegation members Abilio Araujo and Rogerio Lobato and in frequent contact with them at the time. He was also a fervent supporter of the Fretilin Central Committee as led by Nicolau Lobato and was deeply affected by his death (6).

While Denis Freney was absolute in his condemnation of Alarico as a ‘traitor’, he seemed to hesitate holding him directly responsible for Nicolau’s death. In mid-January 1979 he wrote: “We do not exclude that President Lobato was betrayed to the Indonesian forces by counter-revolutionary elements of Xavier do Amaral and Fernandes still existing in the area” (7).

Three months later he wrote that the Indonesian military ambush of Nicolau Lobato was “enabled” by “the internal knowledge provided to the invaders by Fernandes, and the treason of his agents still active in (the ambush area)” (8). Weeks later, Denis’ reflection  following (mistaken) reports of Alarico Fernandes’ execution makes no mention of his direct link to Nicolau’s death and even suggested it was “possible that Fernandes refused to totally capitulate to the Suharto fascists” (9).

Surrender or Capture?

The circumstances and timing of Alarico Fernandes’ alignment with Indonesian forces remain contested.

Indonesia claimed Fernandes was captured in an ambush on Saturday December 2, 1978 (10). East Timor News claimed on the basis of a Reuters news report that Fernandes surrendered to Indonesia on December 3. ETN conceded the possibility of direct contact between Fernandes and Indonesia in late November but doubted suggestions that he was under Indonesian control from late September when the ‘Saturno’ messages began (11).

The 2005 Chega! report does not undertake any particular study of this question but appears to accept that Fernandes surrendered in September 1978 (12). If this is correct, it opens up a possibility that the Saturno messages were created under Indonesian influence. Chega! also reports later speculations from senior leaders on the reasons why Alarico defected.

CHART Comment

This brief exploration of available source materials reveals there are uncertainties about some basic facts concerning Operation Skylight. Those uncertainties could be clarified by other sources in other languages, formal archives and private document collections in Timor-Leste, Indonesia and elsewhere.

The unearthing and careful study of such sources is an important ongoing task. Most of the surviving witnesses and participants in these events are now aged in their 60s or 70s. It is especially important that they be given every opportunity to record and share their source materials, memories and interpretations of events while they are still with us.

CHART can contribute to this process by identifying more primary-source materials in Australian-held archival collections on Timor.

[See also a Tetum-language version of this article]


(1) This brief summary of conditions in 1978 drawn from Chega!, the monumental report of Timor-Leste’s Commission for Reception, Truth & Reconciliation (CAVR). See particularly Part 3: History of the conflict. Full report available for download here.

(2) See ‘A Fernandes great betrayal: Secret messages exposed’, East Timor News #46, 14 December 1978, page 1.

(3) See Carmel Budiardjo & Liem Soei Liong’s book, The War against East Timor (1984), p.36; James Dunn, East Timor: A rough passage to independence (2003), p.271.

(4) Chega! (official English edition), pages 220, 225.

(5) ‘The Saturno messages’, East Timor News #46,, 14 December 1978, page 1.

(6) Personal knowledge and recall, John Waddingham.

(7) ‘After Comrade President Lobato’, East Timor News #48, 18 January 1979, page 3.

(8) ‘The life of Nicolau Lobato’, East Timor News #52, 12 April 1979, page 4.

(9) ‘New manoeuvres by Suharto: Xavier in puppet government’, see subsection ‘Fernandes executed’. East Timor News #55, 31 May 1979, page 1.

(10) ‘Fretilin’s off the air claim’, The Herald (Melbourne), 8 December 1978.

(11) ‘Alarico Fernandes road to betrayal’, see subsection ‘When did he defect?’, East Timor News #46, 14 December 1978, page 2.

(12) Chega! (official English edition), pages 225, 228.



Remembering 1999: ACFOA Human Rights office archives

30 August 2019

It is now twenty years since the historic 30 August 1999 United Nations-supervised ‘Popular Consultation’. Nearly 80% of East Timorese voted to reject Indonesian incorporation and confirmed their long-fought-for desire for independence.

The year was tumultuous in many ways, not least through the depredations of Indonesian military-backed militias. These groups intimidated and murdered East Timorese with impunity before and after the vote and worked with the military after the vote to force a mass displacement of people and destroy most of the territory’s building infrastructure.

There are large volumes of documentation outside Timor which record solidarity group, NGO and government observations and actions about Timor in this dramatic last year of the occupation. We present here a few samples from the archives of a key Australian NGO.

The document sample comes from the archive of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid Human Rights office (ACFOAHR), covering the whole of 1999. For contextual information, we have also provided a link to a full digital copy of the source folder for each of the selected documents.

Click here to view the ACFOAHR 1999 Selections.

The selected documents and their associated folders provide a small window through which we can glimpse the richness of this collection. These records do not necessarily contain many items of great historical importance. They do, however, offer invaluable insight into the interests and work of this historically important office in its advocacy in defense of the East Timorese.

The Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA) was the peak coordinating body for mainstream Australian humanitarian aid and development organisations. It became became prominent locally and internationally in advocacy for Timor through the occupation years from 1975.

Largely as a result of work of Pat Walsh in the name of ACFOA from the late 1970s, the Human Rights office was formally established in 1985 and closed in 2000. While research and advocacy on other matters like Burma/Myanmar, West Papua and the rights of indigenous Australians, East Timor remained a key element in the office during its life.

ACFOAHR Archives
The ACFOAHR archive is one of the largest collections managed by CHART since the early 2000s. The collection is internationally important. It holds a rich documentary record of events inside Timor since 1975, evidence of Australian and international government and non-government advocacy for and against the East Timorese as well as the prodigious record of direct advocacy on Timor by Pat Walsh and his associates in the office.

For a guide to the contents of this important collection, see CHART’s preliminary box list.

CHART has digitised the bulk of this collection – copies of which will be given to East Timorese archival institutions for current and future East Timorese and other researchers.




A Voz de Timor online

17 June 2019

The National Library of Australia has added to its marvellous Trove facility some text-searchable issues of the Portuguese Timor-era  newspaper, A Voz de Timor. We briefly introduce this important new online resource for Timor-Leste historical research.

Portuguese Timor’s last general newspaper of record, A Voz de Timor (1959-1975), is an irreplaceable documentary resource. While ceasing publication at the outbreak of the 1975 ‘civil war’ in Timor, the journal published materials which may not have otherwise survived in any form after the Indonesian invasion in December.

Coverage and contents
This initial upload to Trove includes a few issues from 1973, almost all issues from 1974 and a few from February and March 1975. They provide a valuable record of developments in Portugal and Timor after the April 1974 ‘Carnation Revolution’ set Timor-Leste on course for its dramatic road to independence.

Page One News: 26 April 1974

For example, A Voz de Timor published early/foundation statements from the newly-formed East Timorese political organisations – UDT, ASDT (later Fretilin) and Apodeti.

But the journal is not only about politics. The National Library’s Anya Dettman points to “a vibrant snapshot of everyday life at the time….. advertisements from companies trading there, airline schedules, radio programs, movie screenings, local sports match results, social news and events, and Tetum language features. There are even early poems from some young man called Jose Alexandre Gusmao …”*

Online access options
Ways to access this resource include:

Browse all issues: Click on the ‘1970’ link in the ‘Coverage Graph’

Browse all articles: These can be sorted by earliest or latest date of publication.

Simple Search: Use the search box in the ‘Browse all articles’ screen. See Trove’s help page for tips and tricks with simple searching

Advanced Search: Provides more control over search terms and dates than a simple search. Requires user to restrict the search to the journal title under ‘Places and Titles / International’ section (click on ‘Show Titles’).

Trove also allows users to download individual articles as text, jpg or pdf files, as well as single pages or whole issues in pdf format. See menu icons at left of Trove screen.

End-user text correcting
An outstanding feature of the Trove newspaper resource is that it allows end-users to correct computer-created text errors and to add subject headings or ‘tags’ to articles. See the ‘Fix this text’ button in the left-hand pane of the Trove screen. These activities assist other users to conduct more accurate searches and to find materials of research interest.

The National Library is encouraging East Timorese and other A Voz de Timor readers to contribute text corrections to improve this already very valuable resource. We at CHART hope they do.

* See full A Voz de Timor announcement by Anya Dettman, Trove Digitisation Outreach Officer at the NLA.

Note: CHART was very pleased to play a minor role in contributing to this online resource. Early 1975 issues of A Voz were discovered during CHART work to arrange and describe Jim Dunn’s Timor papers. The issues were loaned by Jim Dunn through CHART to the National Library for inclusion in the Trove digitisation project.

CHART has high-resolution digital copies of the Jim Dunn-held issues of A Voz de Timor. These were created through a special project conducted by the University of Melbourne’s Student Conservators for Timor-Leste. The top graphic in this article was created from the SCTL scans.