Invading Timor


Thirty years ago today, on 7 December 1975, nine US-supplied C-130 aircraft took off from Madiun in East Java, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Suakadirul. It was five minutes past midnight. Suakadirul’s operation was highly secretive and he’d only had two days to prepare his crew and aircraft.

At two minutes after sunrise, Suakadirul flew over Dili. He could see that the lights in the city were extinguished, and suspected that this was deliberate. The East Timorese had been preparing for an invasion for months.

The architects of the invasion of East Timor had realised the significance of this date. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour had also taken place on a Sunday.

The first sortie lasted less than a minute. Six hundred and forty-eight paratroopers quickly landed on the three designated drop points: the Hotel Turismo, the Governor’s Palace and the old airport. One of Suakadirul’s wingmen who had been flying on the left hand side of the formation, closer to the Fretilin stronghold of Taibese, was killed immediately. According to James Dunn’s account in Timor: A People Betrayed, this plane veered off-course and nearly 30 paratroopers drowned in Dili harbour.

Suakadirul smelt munitions burning. Two bullets had hit his aircraft, striking both his cockpit and the back part close to the elevator and stabiliser. He was surprised to discover that he was covered in a brown liquid. He thought he had been wounded; his crew manoeuvred to take over. ‘But it was only my early morning coffee,’ Suakadirul laughed, remembering the bullet that had become his caffeine-hit.

There had been little coordination between the air and amphibious assaults. Suakadirul explained that on the second sortie this had led to ‘friendly fire’ incidents between the marines and paratroopers. The third sortie was cancelled.

The invasion had been a fiasco, although Suakadirul was too polite or blinded by patriotism to ever describe it in this way.

While Suakadirul and I talked in early 2001, C-130s still flew overhead, interrupting our conversation. The Hercules must have been leaving for operations in West Papua and Aceh. Suakadirul now lived in a nice house with a well-kept garden, complete with chirping parrot, near Halim Air Force Base in Jakarta.

He had joined the Air Force in 1958, serving in the West Irian campaign in the early 1960s and studied at the US Air Command School in 1973–4. He climbed the ranks and retired as an Air Vice-Marshal. Suakadirul had been recognised as a loyal and outstanding leader and was well looked after.

In 2001, East Timor was edging towards independence after the trauma and violence of the 1999 UN referendum and 24 years of Indonesian occupation. Suakadirul was unhappy that East Timor no longer wanted to be a part of Indonesia.

‘How many people died there?’ he asked me rhetorically. It was an interesting question and I urged him to answer it. ‘About 11,000,’ he replied. It went without saying that his figures only included the number of Indonesian military killed. Suakadirul’s explanation for what he described as the Indonesian ‘operation’ in East Timor mirrored that of the Indonesian Government: the East Timorese were ‘brothers’ and some had asked, as a brother would, to be free of the colonialism of the Portuguese era.

This explanation may appear illogical and twisted to us, but for the Indonesian military, government and its most loyal collaborator, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the political fiction was straightforward. East Timor wanted integration with Indonesia, indeed they had even ‘asked for it’.

The recently declassified documents from the independent Washington-based think-tank the National Security Archives (NSA) reveal the American and British contribution to this sad and sorry saga of collaboration and collusion. As far back as 1963 the US State Department had prepared a paper describing the inevitability of an Indonesian attack on East Timor. ‘Indonesia has no legal basis for a claim on the territory,’ it noted.

But East Timor became a victim of international acquiescence and complicity. By March 1975 the US National Security Council (NSC) recommended a ‘policy of silence.’

Following cross-border Indonesian military incursions in October 1975, a staff member told Secretary of State Henry Kissinger: ‘It looks like the Indonesians have begun the attack on Timor.’ The documents reveal Kissinger’s response: ‘I’m assuming you’re really going to keep your mouth shut on this subject.’

After the invasion, the NSC prepared a detailed inventory of the US military hardware used. The US Congress, aware that the military weapons were being used illegally, called for an end to further sales to Indonesia. This uncharacteristic moment of clear-headed behaviour was quickly quashed from inside the US Administration.

The stage-managed integration, the aerial bombardments and the massacres were all documented by successive US Administrations. Nearly one week after the invasion a ‘Top Secret’ intelligence document recommended East Timor’s ‘isolation’ as a way to ‘facilitate the efforts the Indonesians are sure to make to keep info on Timor dissidents from reaching the outside world.’

However, this policy failed spectacularly. From the earliest days there were eyewitness testimonies of East Timorese exiles and refugees who had fled to Portugal and Australia, and the work of David Scott, James Dunn, Noam Chomsky, Jill Jolliffe, Shirley Shackleton and the families of the Balibo Five, who kept asking questions and demanding answers.

There was also the contribution of the crazy-brave activists Rob Wesley-Smith and Dennis Freney and the great untold story of the clandestine radio network operating inside the Northern Territory scrub to communicate with the East Timorese resistance.

The unclassified documents were initially released by the NSA to East Timor’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CAVR) in its quest for information and justice, which has so far proven elusive. Even President Xanana Gusmao has suppressed the Commission’s findings and its recommendation that reparations be paid by the major perpetrators of human rights abuses during the Indonesian occupation. John Martinkus, journalist and author of A Dirty Little War and Indonesia’s Secret War in Aceh, has called this ‘institutionalised impunity.’

For every retired Indonesian officer in Jakarta there is a row of crosses in a forgotten corner of East Timor, West Papua and Aceh. ‘The only way the military can control the country is by killing people,’ Martinkus writes in Indonesia’s Secret War in Aceh. ‘And the less information recorded about the killings, the longer they can continue to do it.’

December 7, 1975. Lest we forget.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.