Imagine you are a mid ranking official in the Portuguese diplomatic service in the early 1970s. One Christmas after a few too many drinks at the office party, you make a pass at your boss’s wife, then allow yourself to be overheard telling the new receptionist how your department is run by a bunch of incompetent halfwits.
Come the new year, if indeed for you there is a new year, you might expect a posting to the colonial administration supposedly running East Timor. Career oblivion follows. Such was the lack of importance attached to this far flung colony by Lisbon, who had far more pressing matters to occupy their thoughts, namely the unravelling of their resource rich territories Mozambique and Angola. Overlooked and under resourced, East Timor continued its sleepy existence, ignored by most of the world with the possible exception of neighbouring West Timor, now part of Indonesia.
The source of Timor’s division lay in the way the European colonial powers carved up the region in their pursuit of spices and other commodities. The western half of Timor ended up in Dutch hands, the eastern half in Portuguese. At the end of the second world war, when Indonesia gained its independence, West Timor became part of the new nation along with the rest of the three thousand or so islands making up the Dutch East Indies. East Timor, meanwhile, continued as a colonial outpost, internationally still recognised as part of metropolitan Portugal.
By the early 1970s Portugal had serious problems. To add to the burgeoning independence movements in Africa, the Salazar administration was on the verge of collapse. An authoritarian right wing regime modelled along the lines of Mussolini’s Italy, it was replaced in a 1974 coup by a socialist government with a completely different set of priorities and views on its far flung colonies. The new government was quite happy to wash its hands of East Timor, which it saw as an irrelevance and a financial drain.
This turned out to be not quite so simple as they thought. Opinion in East Timor was sharply divided, between a wealthy minority who favoured integration with Indonesia, and those who wanted to create their own independent state, with or without Portugal’s involvement. This latter group, broadly socialist in disposition but by no means Marxist, were highly distrustful of Indonesia’s intentions for their country.
Whilst Indonesia claimed to have no designs on East Timor, the generals running the country saw a potential Trojan horse in their midst from which a socialist revolution could be launched. Having spent the past ten years rooting out communists in their own islands and watching both Vietnam and Cambodia succumb to the hammer and sickle, they were in no mood to take an indulgent view of left leaning movements for national self determination.
The stage was well and truly set for a conflict of catastrophic proportions…