Documents: Santa Cruz Massacre – 30 years on

10 August 2021

An international online symposium will mark the 30th anniversary of the infamous but history-changing 12 November 1991 Santa Cruz Massacre in Dili. We introduce here one Australian set of Santa Cruz-related documents and seek further contributions towards an online archives exhibition for the forthcoming symposium.

The death toll in the 1991 Santa Cruz Massacre remains contested, but this contemporary Indonesian cartoon got the aftermath right: Santa Cruz caused a dramatic and permanent increase in international scrutiny of the Indonesian military occupation of East Timor.

An International Research Symposium about the 1991 Santa Cruz Massacre will be held on 9-10 November 2021. The event is being organised by the Timor-Leste Studies Association and Timor’s Centro Nasional Chega! See more details in the TLSA’s  call for papers.

In support of the symposium, CHART proposed an exhibition of internationally-held archival materials about Santa Cruz. With the concurrence of Prof. David Webster in Canada, this exhibition will be mounted on his ever-expanding Timor Solidarity Archive (TiSA).

Digital copies of Santa Cruz-related documents are being sought from individuals and institutions internationally, to add to the online exhibition.

Please contact or send materials to David Webster (dwebster[AT]ubishops[DOT]ca).

ACFOA Human Rights Office Collection

The Santa Cruz files of the internationally-known Australian Council for Overseas Aid Human Rights Office have been added to TiSA to start building the exhibition.

The files are copies of working papers of the Office and its director, Pat Walsh. The files include some key documentary sources about Santa Cruz, but also show the day-to-day notes and communications of just one of the many active centres of Timor solidarity and advocacy which burst into new or renewed activity in mid-November 1991.

Other collections will need to be added to TiSA to show the full range of surviving documentary materials about this important moment in Timor-Leste’s tortuous path to independence.

Click here to view the ACFOA Human Rights Office Santa Cruz folders on TiSA.

See below for a small sample of individual items selected from the original 32 folders of documents.



‘New time bomb is ticking’. Newsclip 14 October 1990

This article notes the rise of public dissent by East Timorese youth in Dili a full year before the Santa Cruz events.

View other documents in the folder.


Motael Church killings, 28 October 1991

Bishop Belo’s statement of facts regarding his findings about the deaths of Sebastião Gomes and Afonso at Motael Church in the early-morning hours.

View other documents in this folder.


Eye-witness account of Santa Cruz events, 15 November 1991

Transcript of media conference given by Australian aid worker, Bob Muntz, who was injured during his escape from the massacre area.

View other eye-witness accounts in this folder.


Australian Foreign Minister’s statement to Parliament, 26 November 1991

Senator Gareth Evans prompted public criticism for describing the massacre as ‘abberant behaviour’ by the Indonesian military.

View other documents in this folder.


Indonesian Catholic Bishops Conference statement, 28 November 1991

Statements and questions from Konperensi Waligereja Indonesia after two visits to Dili by KWI representatives in late November.

View other documents in this folder.


Dossier: International media coverage, November-December 1991

A selection of Australian and international media items about Santa Cruz, issued by the East Timor Talks Campaign in Australia.

View whole dossier / folder.


Indonesia’s Legal Aid Institute report, January 1992

LBH, Indonesia’s long-standing human rights organisation, calls on the Indonesian government to act truthfully and fairly on Santa Cruz matters.

View other documents in this folder.


Berita Timur Timor update, 09 January 1992

An Indonesian NGO update on the legal proceedings facing East Timorese being detained in Jakarta following Santa Cruz. Includes the names of the detainees.

View other documents in this folder.


Juan Federer Jakarta interviews, January/February 1992

A fascinating insight into the Timor views and attitudes of well-connected Indonesians after Santa Cruz.

View other documents in this folder.


Amnesty International report, 06 February 1992

Amnesty concluded that the Indonesian-created National Commission of Inquiry on Santa Cruz was fatally flawed and its conclusions were unacceptable.

View other documents in this folder.


Asia Watch report, 23 June 1992

Asia Watch summarises and critically assesses legal proceedings taken against members of the Indonesian military for their roles in the Santa Cruz massacre.

View other documents in this folder. 


See also:

CHART’s 2011 guide to sources on the Santa Cruz Massacre.


Kevin Sherlock Collection: Researching Timorese migration to Australia

5 January 2021

 Kevin Sherlock’s death in Darwin in 2014 marked the end of his forty years of dedicated travelling, researching, collecting, translating and indexing published materials about Timor. He bequeathed his collection to the Charles Darwin University Library for long-term preservation and access.

Dr Vannessa Hearman recently accessed the Sherlock collection for her current research on East Timorese migration to Australia. She writes here of her immersion in this rich and valuable resource. 

Dr Vannessa Hearman delving into the Kevin Sherlock Collection.

Charles Darwin University (CDU), a small regional university located in Australia’s tropical north, has an outstanding collection on East Timor worthy of a research visit. CDU holds a special collection on East Timor that can be consulted in the library of its main campus at Casuarina, as well as a decent range of monographs in its Main Collection that can be borrowed directly or via interlibrary loans. CDU really stands out, though, as the custodian of the Kevin Sherlock East Timor Collection.

Establishing one of the best private collections in the world on East Timor, Darwin-based Kevin Sherlock was recognised by the East Timorese government for his services to the country in 2010. After organising and listing the collection at CDU in 2015, CHART’s John Waddingham observed: ‘This is a seriously impressive research collection which will be much consulted in the years to come.’ In this post, I share with readers some of my experiences in using the collection.

Location: Palmerston Campus
Due to space constraints, the Sherlock collection is housed at CDU’s Palmerston campus, some 20 kilometres from the Casuarina Campus where the other collections are held. For researchers planning to visit, it is important to contact the library beforehand, so that a librarian can arrange access. The collection is housed in a locked room which can only be accessed through library staff members. You will need to find your own way around the Sherlock collection, as there is not much collection advice available from the staff, who are either casual or on rotation from front desk duties at Casuarina.

At first glance, the collection appeared to be small, as the room in which it is hosted, in one corner of the library, is small. But its treasures reveal themselves slowly. It took me a few days to get used to the way the collection was arranged. Several pieces of information were needed to reveal the depth of the collection. I used a combination of the CDU library catalogue showing the books, journals and reports that have been catalogued thus far, an Excel spreadsheet showing CDU’s entire East Timor collection drawn up by one of the librarians for me, and Kevin’s own partial shelf list created in 2002 of almost 450 pages in length. By consulting all of these resources, I managed to get a reasonably good idea of what was in the collection. Nothing, though, beat being able to touch, see and read the materials directly.

Browsing the collection
The beauty of the Sherlock collection is its integrity. Much of the historical writing about East Timor is sharply divided between the time of pre- and post-Indonesian invasion. Having materials across several historical periods in one place allows the researcher plenty of opportunities for serendipitous discovery by just walking along the shelves. Being able to inspect the items, such as by pulling out and inspecting folders, based on pure speculation and curiosity, can also help foster new ways of thinking about East Timor and consider connections, rather than ruptures, between topics and historical periods.

The collection can be roughly divided into books and other materials (such as theses, newsletters and bulletins) that can be found by searching through the library catalogue (marked by CDU with the letters KS before the call number), and a variety of materials filed in folders (as discussed here). Kevin’s partial shelf list, mentioned earlier, provides some guidance to the folder materials. For my research on the East Timorese community in Australia, I focused initially on the newsletters published in Melbourne, Sydney, Darwin and Brisbane. In particular, the collection has extensive holdings of newsletters from Darwin (Eco, O Lusitano and La’o Rai) and Melbourne (Hadomi), as well as newsletters produced by the East Timorese community in Lisbon, Portugal.

A treasure trove
But the real treasure trove, for me, was the ordinary looking folders. A group of 502 folders, consisting of materials collected and arranged in alphabetical order, contained hard-to-find materials, such as exhibition catalogues, conference programs and papers, and ephemera such as leaflets and brochures of activist groups and fundraising campaigns. Materials Kevin collected, such as minutes of the meetings of the City of Darwin’s Friendship City Committee (with Dili) and plans for the Darwin Tetum School, founded in 1993, to teach the Tetum language to Timorese children in the diaspora showed the many hours of activities carried out in Darwin in support of East Timor, including by Kevin himself.

Poignantly, many of these materials also reflected the contribution of the late Jose Adriano Gusmao, National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT) representative in Darwin, as well as of other East Timorese activists. Despite the availability of digitised newspapers now, other folders containing press clippings from the late 1970s to 2014 might also yield items of interest to researchers, for example, Jakarta Post and other media articles.

A role for researchers

Hosting a collection like the Kevin Sherlock requires ongoing support from the university and the library administration. East Timor researchers can help secure its future and demonstrate its value by using the collection and, perhaps as a professional grouping, discussing with the library as to how more of the collection could be made accessible to researchers worldwide. In this way, Kevin’s legacy may be more fully realised.


At the time of writing (late 2020), Vannessa Hearman was senior lecturer in Indonesian Studies at Charles Darwin University. In 2021, Dr Hearman will be senior lecturer in History at Curtin University in Western Australia [vannessa.hearman[at]curtin.edu.au]. Her research on East Timorese migration to Australia is funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC SR200201031).


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.

Contents
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]


Notes

(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.

 


NOTES

* 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]


Notes

(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.

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