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.

Gordon McIntosh, 1925-2019

11 March 2019

A highly-principled and tenacious supporter of East Timorese self-determination and independence since 1975, former Australian Senator Gordon McIntosh sadly passed away on Sunday, 10 March 2019.

We devote this page to the memory of his unique role in the history of modern Timor-Leste – particularly during the 1974-1999 years of decolonisation, occupation and liberation.

More will be added to this page over the coming days. Links to material about Gordon McIntosh or comments about his Timor role are warmly welcomed.

Gordon McIntosh, visited by young East Timorese in Perth, January 2016

A brief Timor biography

Gordon McIntosh began his working life at aged 15 as an apprentice metal worker in the Glasgow shipyards. Migrating from Scotland with his wife Betty in 1950, he quickly found skilled metal work in Perth, Western Australia, where he was also very active in the union movement.

He began serving on the State Executive of the Australian Labor Party as early as 1952. He was elected a Labor Party Senator in the Australian Parliament in 1974 and served in that role until 1987.

Timor roles

During those years in the Senate he played a major part in keeping the Timor issue alive in the Parliament, despite the actions and policies of successive Australian Governments (Labor and Liberal) to oppose East Timorese self-determination and independence.

In addition to the many parliamentary questions asked by Senator McIntosh, he is best known as Chair of the 1982-83 Senate Inquiry about East Timor and his membership of the Australian Parliamentary Delegation to Indonesia and East Timor in 1983.

His dissent from the formal report of the Delegation was widely reported in Australia and welcomed by the Resistance in Timor. His dissent played a key part in nullifying the Hawke Labor Government’s attempts to over-ride Labor policy supporting East Timorese self-determination.

Outside parliament he addressed many public meetings in Australia, New Zealand and New York. He petitioned the United Nations Decolonisation Committee in 1982 and joined others on the Lusitania Express peace ship mission to Timor in 1992.

In 2014, Gordon McIntosh was awarded the Order of Timor-Leste for his contribution to the East Timorese struggle for independence. In 2016 he visited Timor-Leste as a guest of the State. During this visit he met for the first time the resistance veterans who had applauded his support in the 1980s.

Up until a few months before his death at age 93, Gordon McIntosh retained a vivid recall of his Timor experiences and maintained an active interest in the emerging state of Timor-Leste. With his passing, the East Timorese community and its overseas support network lost one of its staunchest friends.

Various items on Gordon McIntosh’s Timor record

Australian Parliamentary Biography
A formal biography of Gordon McIntosh’s early life and parliamentary record.

Order of Timor-Leste
Notes in support of Gordon McIntosh’s 2014 Ordem de Timor-Leste award.

McIntosh / Ulun Toos
Timor Archives backgrounder to a ‘lost’ 1988 Xanana Gusmao letter to McIntosh and McIntosh’s 2015 reply.

Gordon McIntosh Timor Archives (1)
A preliminary guide to the Timor papers of Gordon McIntosh

Gordon McIntosh Timor Archives (2)
An online selection of digital copies of McIntosh’s Timor papers.

Deceit, dissent and the verdict of history
Clinton Fernandes’ paper on the context and aims of the 1983 Parliamentary delegation to Timor and the significance of McIntosh’s dissent from the official delegation Report.

More to come…….

Centro Nasional Chega! director visits CHART

8 February 2019

Hugo Fernandes, the executive director of Timor-Leste’s Centro Nasional Chega! (CNC), visited the CHART Melbourne office in late January 2019. His visit provided more insight into the work of the CNC and marked a deepening of our relationship with this new Timorese institution.

Hugo Fernandes (third from right) with CHART staff and Board members, Melbourne. 29 January 2019

Centro Nasional Chega! is the successor institution to Timor-Leste’s 2002-2005 Commission for Reception, Truth & Reconciliation – more generally known by its Portuguese-language acronym, CAVR*. CNC’s mission is, broadly, to promote the implementation of recommendations of Chega!, CAVR’s monumental report..

CNC’s work focus will include the preservation of memory, the promotion of human rights through education and training and solidarity with the most vulnerable survivors of human rights violations in the 1974-1999 period.

CNC was established by government decree law in late 2016 and commenced operations in July 2017. CNC also succeeds CAVR by being based at the former Comarca prison in Balide, Dili.

As CNC’s inaugural director, Hugo Fernandes visited Darwin, Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra between January 23 and February 3, 2019, under the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT) special visitors program.** With a packed schedule, he visited a broad range of cultural and advocacy organisations and institutions related to his CNC work and other responsibilities in Timor-Leste


CNC’s responsibility to preserve and provide access to the unique CAVR archive, to expand its information resources and create a dynamic centre for research and learning is of particular interest and relevance to CHART.

In September 2017, CHART and CNC signed a memorandum of understanding in which CHART agreed to provide practical and professional advice to CNC on archival matters. In October/November 2017, CHART’s John Waddingham and Cecily Gilbert conducted an onsite assessment of the CNC archive and library, making a number of recommendations to develop both functions.

Inspecting selections from CHART-held Timor archives.

Hugo Fernandes reported to CHART members on the ongoing value to CNC of the 2017 assessment recommendations.

He also outlined a range of recent CNC memorialisation activities, including:

  • a permanent photographic exhibition of historic events at the main government building,
  • a published guide to historic sites of human rights violations in Dili, and
  • a collection of writings by Timor-Leste’s early nationalist leader and first prime minister, Nicolau Lobato.

Mr Fernandes inspected a small exhibition of archival materials from CHART-held collections, and participated in discussions about CHART operations in Australia, our knowledge of Australian-held collections about Timor and our document digitisation program.

CHART and CNC have agreed to revise the 2017 MoU in the near future. It is expected to include transfers of digital copies of Australian-held archives and ongoing support for CNC’s archival development. We very much look forward to enhancing the relationship.


*CAVR: Comissão de Acolhimento, Verdade e Reconciliação de Timor-Leste

** Mr Fernandes was accompanied by the First Secretary (Political) of the Australian Embassy in Dili, Lisa Clutterham.

Further Information:

Follow day-to-day Centro Chega activities on CNC’s Tetum-language FaceBook page.

CNC’s multi-language official website is in early development.

For an in-depth background to the establishment of Centro Nasional Chega!, see Pat Walsh’s August 2017 paper, Growing Flowers in a Prison. Pat Walsh was a key advisor to CAVR and the post-CAVR Secretariat as well as a member of the Working Group which planned the creation of CNC and a member of CNC’s international advisory group. Pat is a co-founder and current Board member of CHART.

See original Portuguese-language text of the Timor-Leste decree law establishing CNC, along with an unofficial English translation (courtesy of Luis Pinto, Portugal).

Photographs: Thanks to Lisa Clutterham / DFAT.