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.



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.

Access to CHART digital files

5 September 2017

We are delighted to announce the launch of CHART Digital – a website to access digital materials created by Clearing House for Archival Records on Timor (CHART) Inc.

CHART Digital is a project to provide access to some digital files on Timor-Leste history, 1974-1999. The digital files were created in the course of CHART work on privately-held Australian collections.

CHART Digital is an interim access step. The original physical collections must ultimately be secured in a public library or archive. CHART Digital provides access to digital copies of some of these materials while decisions are made about where to permanently house the physical collections.

We expect CHART Digital to provide a unique Australian supplement to the extensive online collections already available through the Timorese Resistance Archive & Museum and CIDAC.

Modest beginnings
This online resource begins with one collection – the Timor papers of former Senator Gordon McIntosh. Many of the working files of McIntosh’s time in the Australian Senate (1974-1987) have been digitised and are accessible on CHART Digital. We also selected a small number of individual documents to exhibit the range of material to be found in the larger collection.

Digital files from other collections will be added to the website as time and resources permit. These include, for example, materials from Timor Information Service (1975-1983) and the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA) Human Rights office, 1978-2000.

Feedback wanted
We are calling CHART Digital a pilot project. We are keen to get feedback from researchers on the design of the website and any difficulties experienced in finding or accessing material.

Please let us know what you think by way of a ‘Comment’ (see below) or emailing us at: chart[at] timorarchives.info

Photographs: Creators, context, content

24 June 2016

Photographs are an important primary source of information in Timor history but information on their creators is often lost. We post a few such images here and ask: Who were the photographers and where are the original hard copies?

Thousands of Timor images for the 1974-1999 period can be found in private archives or online on social media or in archival databases* – but seldom with any record of the key information needed to extract their full historical value. Photographs are most valuable when we know the photographer’s identity, when they were created and where.

Identifying the photographer  serves a number of purposes. It assists in determining the date, location and context of the images. It increases the probability that the image is depicting real events and is not fake. It also ensures proper attribution or credit to the original creator of the photo.

In many cases however, the actual photographer may never be known. This is particularly so with photos from inside occupied East Timor such as the many available images of the armed resistance. To establish authenticity of such images, we can draw on whatever knowledge we have about the ‘chain of custody’ or the first identifiable owner of the photographs.

Central Register?
In the interests of long-term historical knowledge and research, a case can be made for a central online register of historical photographs of the 1974-1999 era. Such a register would enable researchers and publishers to identify the origins of a particular image. It would also provide an opportunity for missing information to be provided by anyone with such knowledge; so-called ‘crowd-sourcing’ the data.

Ideally, such a register would be established and maintained by a relevant institution in Timor-Leste.

Who took these photos? Do you know?
We present here a few images for which we would like to establish the name of the photographer and any known location of original prints or negatives.

We invite you, the ‘crowd’, to assist us in this task by making a public comment on this post or emailing us at: blog[at]timorarchives.info

IMAGE A: FRETILIN rally. 1975?

IMAGE A: Fretilin rally. 1975?

IMAGE B: Fretilin rally. 1975?

IMAGE B: Fretilin rally. 1975?

IMAGE C: Nicolau Lobato. 28 November 1975? Photographer could be Jill Jolliffe or Michael Richardson?

IMAGE C: Nicolau Lobato. 28 November 1975? Photographer could be Jill Jolliffe or Michael Richardson?

IMAGE D: First RDTL Government. Photographer could be Jill Jolliffe or Michael Richardson.

IMAGE D: First RDTL Government. Photographer could be Jill Jolliffe or Michael Richardson?

IMAGE E: Fretilin resistance members meet Australian parliamentary delegation leader, Bill Morrison. July 1983.

IMAGE E: Fretilin resistance members meet Australian parliamentary delegation leader, Bill Morrison. July 1983.

_ _ _ _ _

*  Some image sets can be found online through the following links:

1975 Australian professional photographers Oliver Strewe, Penny Tweedie and Bob Hannan.

Timorese Resistance Archive & Museum

Facebook Albums on FALINTIL and Indonesian invasion.

McIntosh Ulun Toos

1 May 2016

Almost thirty years after it was written, a letter from resistance leader Xanana Gusmao to Australian senator Gordon McIntosh has come to light. The correspondence provides a detailed insight into 1980s resistance thinking. It also indicates the particularly high regard in which McIntosh was held for his support for East Timorese self-determination.


Xanana Gusmao’s 1988 letter to Senator Gordon McIntosh is an extensive and passionate exposition of the East Timorese resistance leader’s views on the internal and international aspects of the Indonesian occupation at that time.  Key areas covered by the letter include:

  • An outline of the driving force of resistance – the fight to protect and preserve the distinctive cultural identity of the Maubere people (pages 1-3);
  • The changes in the political direction of the organised resistance (p.4);
  • Strong criticism of Australian, Indonesian and other arguments against East Timorese independence (pp. 5-9);
  • Resistance proposals, based on the 1983 Fretilin peace plan, for resolution of the conflict (pp. 10-11)

The 1988 letter refers several times to the Hawke government’s Timor Gap interest as a driver of Australian policy against the Timorese. This is a striking harbinger of Xanana Gusmao’s current advocacy against Australia’s maritime boundary policy in 2016.

Click links here to see the 1988 Xanana Gusmao letter, official Timor-Leste Tetun and English translations and a somewhat-more literal private English translation.*

Late delivery, late reply
Unhappily, Gordon McIntosh never received this important letter in 1988. A photocopy of the letter was discovered in August 2015 in a private collection being processed by CHART. With the collection-owner’s agreement, a photograph of the copy was forwarded to McIntosh. In turn, McIntosh’s belated reply to the letter was handed to Xanana Gusmao in Melbourne in December 2015.

The reason why the original letter never got to McIntosh is unclear. One possibility is that it went astray in the postal system; perhaps not reaching McIntosh who had already ceased being a Senator before the letter was sent.

Gordon McIntosh told CHART that he was most disappointed not to have received the letter in 1988. “I would have been able to communicate it to other East Timor supporters in Australia and elsewhere and used it in speeches I gave about East Timor in my post-Senate years”, he said.

Click here to see Gordon McIntosh’s reply, 30 November 2015.

Ulun Toos
An associated letter was also found with the 1988 copy – a Xanana Gusmao letter to Agio Pereira (then a key external resistance contact in Australia and now senior minister in the Timor-Leste government). This letter explains why McIntosh was chosen by Xanana to be the recipient of the 1988 exposition.

Xanana notes the admiration the resistance felt for Gordon McIntosh when he refused in 1983 to endorse the report of the Australian Parliamentary delegation to East Timor**. He recalls the affectionate name the guerillas gave to McIntosh after this event: ‘McIntosh Ulun Toos‘ – literally ‘hard-headed’ or ‘stubborn’; the Tetum word Toos rhyming with ‘-tosh’.

Click links here to see text of the covering letter and an English translation.

Xanana Gusmao with Gordon McIntosh and Lere Anan Timur, Dili, March 2016. [Source: Max Stahl]

Xanana Gusmao with Gordon McIntosh and Lere Anan Timur, Dili, March 2016. [Source: Max Stahl]

On receipt of McIntosh’s reply in December 2015, Xanana Gusmao invited him to Timor-Leste as a guest of the nation. McIntosh, accompanied by his son Craig, visited Timor in March 2-7 and was an honoured guest at a Veterans Conference on March 3. He was emotionally received by many veterans who knew his name from the occupation years.

He also met up with East Timorese who had risked their own safety to pass documents to him to carry out of Timor in 1983. McIntosh donated to the the Resistance Archive and Museum digital copies of his personal archives on the 1983 parliamentary delegation visit – including a document from the then-prison island of Atauro listing political prisoner deaths and disappearances.


* Private translation work by Atoki Madeira, Graeme Edis and Luis Pinto. Official translations by the National Directorate of Translation, Presidency of the Council of Ministers, Government of Timor-Leste.

** The 1983 Australian Parliamentary delegation, which included Gordon McIntosh, was seen by activists at the time to be a part of a Hawke government strategy to dismiss Labor Party policy supporting East Timorese self-determination. McIntosh’s decision to dissent from the delegation report, combined with a resumption of military hostilities in August-September 1983, undermined the strategy.

Gordon McIntosh archives: Preliminary list.