Thirty one years ago today, Nicolau Lobato was killed in armed combat by Indonesian occupying military forces. For most East Timorese (and overseas supporters of Timorese self-determination) the death of this proud, authoritative Timorese nationalist leader was shocking news.
Lobato was a most potent symbol and personification of East Timorese resistance. His loss later turned out to be more than a symbol; it marked the virtual decimation of the original Timorese organised resistance. It took some time for the resistance to emerge from the defeats of 1978-79 – eventually under the new leadership of Xanana Gusmao.
Lobato’s loss also marked the height of despondency amongst East Timorese support circles in Australia and overseas – though solidarity organisations also managed to re-emerge two or three years later as a force to be reckoned with.
The re-vitalisation of Timorese resistance and international solidarity are big stories in their own right. What follows is a sample from my Timor Information Service archives on how we came to learn of Nicolau Lobato’s tragic death.
First reports & reactions
Australian Timor activists, from long experience, were highly sceptical of early Australian media reports of Lobato’s death. A report in the Brisbane Telegraph was typical with its vague references to Indonesian media, government or army sources:
The Telegraph (Brisbane) 02 January 1979
Front page stories of Indonesian military action inside Timor were very rare in Jakarta media at anytime during the early years of occupation. This event was different. Pictures and stories of Indonesian military top-brass beside the alleged body of the slain leader were indications that the claims were true.
Accepting the reports
I remember closely examining the Indonesian photographs of Lobato’s body in these reports and conceding that, despite obvious emaciation, it did seem to be the Fretilin leader.
Key Australian confidante of Fretilin and prominent activist Denis Freney sought our help to translate the Sinar Harapan article. Our (unidentified) translator’s hand-written rough translation of the article survives in our files, along with a hastily typed version which was sent to Freney.
Denis Freney’s letter acknowledging receipt of the translation also concluded that the death of Nicolau Lobato looked to be true. His letter also pointed to the possible implications of his death for Australian and international solidarity work.
A recent Fretilin short biography of Nicolau Lobato can be found here.