Tag Archives: Portugal

Invading East Timor. What was Suharto thinking?

East Timor Grunge Flag, powerful symbol of a quarter of a century's resistance. Image courtesy of domdean/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

East Timor Grunge Flag, powerful symbol of a quarter of a century’s resistance. Image courtesy of domdean/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

There is no doubt that when Indonesian troops invaded East Timor in December 1975, it was a deliberate decision taken at the highest levels of the Indonesian government and personally approved by President Suharto. The question remains, why did he do it?

Suharto was notoriously inscrutable, capable of hiding his true thoughts from all around him. He was also highly skilled at playing different factions off against each other. Aloof and impenetrable, his true motives were never easy to discern. However, it is possible to isolate a number of reasons why Indonesia might have chosen to annexe East Timor. Here are the main ones:

1. Oil. Indonesia was blessed with massive reserves of oil, and there was good reason within the geological community to suppose similar reserves lay under the Timor Sea. Incorporating East Timor into Mother Indonesia would give the country control of these potential reserves and access to the wealth they promised.

Having said that, Indonesia had never made any territorial claims on East Timor, and certainly not while Portugal was in control. Whilst Suharto was a tough dictator, he was no Saddam Hussein, and didn’t have a history of aggressive expansionism. He was also sensitive to his reputation in the West and was scrupulous about ensuring he would not upset the United States before embarking upon any foreign policy adventure. Besides, he had enough on his hands controlling the 3,000 or so islands that made up Indonesia without taking on additional troublesome commitments. Indonesia was already mineral rich, Suharto’s problems lay elsewhere.

2. Fear of Communism. Suharto loathed communism, and presided over the 1965 bloodbath that effectively extinguished communism as a political force in the country. The idea of a socialist state setting itself up on his doorstep would have been anathema to him; taking decisive action to crush it would have been a fairly easy sell to the Americans, still reeling from defeats in Vietnam and Cambodia.

3. Opportunism. The collapse of the Salazar regime in Lisbon created a power vacuum in East Timor, and although the socialist leaning Fretilin attempted to fill it, they were no match for the economic or military might of Indonesia. Neither was Portugal, despite their protests, in a position to do anything. With the covert blessing of the United States and the reluctance of Australia to stand up to Indonesia, Suharto could be excused for seeing East Timor as a gift handed to him on a plate. All he had to do was turn up and march in.

No doubt each of these factors played a part in Indonesia’s decision to go ahead and take East Timor for themselves. What is harder to ascertain is the relative importance each factor had in the equation. To do that one would have to get an insight into the workings of Suharto’s mind, something few, if any, individuals ever came close to achieving.

East Timor – Background to an invasion

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.

Palacio do Governo, flying the East Timorese flag. Photo Alex Castro

Palacio do Governo, flying the East Timorese flag.
Photo Alex Castro

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.

East_Timor_map_mhn

Map of Timor-Leste (formerly known as East Timor)
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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…