Operation Skylight, 1978: Unresolved questions

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.


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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3 Responses to Operation Skylight, 1978: Unresolved questions

  1. Peter Job says:

    This is something I can shed some light on as I was operating the Darwin receiving post part of Radio Maubere throughout this time. Whatever the circumstances of Fernandes capture or surrender he seemed to do a few things to try and give us a message regarding his situation. During most of 1978 we received messages every few days. The reception was varied, coming and going as short wave does. Then we went through a period of about ten days without anything, for the first time. Then Fernandes came back, but with a much stronger signal then he had ever used – in hindsight because he was now in ABRI hands and clearly using a much stronger transmitter. But he gave us a very unusual message, claiming a “American mercenary officer” assisting the Indonesians had been killed. As he said this there was a very sharp beep, as if he had touched some kind of button. Then he went offline for about another ten days. When he came back he was dismissive of questions about the American mercenary, and started sending the coded messages with their contents of betrayal. I think, whatever the circumstances of his surrender or capture, he was trying to send us a message in that first transmission. My own view was that the coded messages were sent at the instigation of ABRI to divide the external Fretilin organisation and the solidarity movement – which it did.
    Peter Job

    • TimorArchives says:

      Many thanks for this very interesting addition to the story, Peter. We will look more closely at Rob Wesley-Smith’s (incomplete) set of recordings from this period to see if they contain any of the particular fragments you mention. If so, we will put them online for others to hear. John Waddingham.

  2. Luke Slater says:

    A good source for the Indonesian military’s air operations is contained in Hendro Subroto’s Operasi Udara Di Timor Timur (Air Operations in East Timor). Includes what happened to two helicopters shot down in 1978 and the introduction of the OV-10 Broncos. It is only published in Indonesian

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