Savingram to Posts

Canberra, 3 July 1974


Portuguese Timor-Political Situation and Prospects


The coup in Portugal has undermined the colonial order in Timor where the authorities now permit freedom of political activity. Political change has influenced the small elite in Timor but has scarcely permeated to the mass of Timorese. Three parties have been formed which advocate different approaches to the political future of Timor. Because of the backwardness and inexperience of the Timorese, genuine self-determination will require careful preparation. Timorese dislike of the Chinese could lead to difficulties. Colonialism has isolated Timor from the region but Indonesia and Australia may exercise powerful influence in the future.


  1. This assessment is based on the visit which McLennan and Dunn made to Portuguese Timor between 17 and 27 June. It supersedes and corrects some inaccuracies in our preliminary assessment of 7 June (Savingram O.CH68549).

Political Setting

  1. The coup in Portugal has undermined the settled colonial order in Timor, which has endured for over four centuries on the basis of Timor’s political and economic backwardness and isolation from external influence. The Pacific War briefly exposed Portuguese Timor to Japanese and Australian influence. But it escaped the post-war process of decolonisation in South-East Asia. In the absence of a nationalist movement, political evolution in Timor has awaited the stimulus of change in Portugal itself.
  2. Following the coup, the Portuguese authorities introduced freedom of political activity in Timor and declared their commitment to the principle of self-determination. The new situation brought about by these actions has most directly affected the educated elite in Timor, who number 20-25,000 in a population of about 650,000. The composition and interests of the elite are divergent. As well as educated Timorese, it includes the Portuguese army and administration, expatriate elements and a Chinese community of perhaps 10,000, which dominates Portuguese Timor economically and is disliked by the other communities, both expatriate and Timorese.
  3. The implications of the new situation are but dimly perceived by the ill-educated mass of Timorese. The Portuguese technique of indirect rule and the absence of pronounced economic change under colonial rule have preserved and rigidified the traditional character of Timorese society. Social and economic standards are very backward and depressed but the Timorese, having no other standard of reference, are unaware of the wretchedness of their condition. Their political outlook is coloured by emotional loyalty to Portugal. They are vulnerable to influence by conservative Portuguese interests that are entrenched in the administration and they are suspicious of points of view that envisage an autonomous future for Timor. At present, the Timorese are ill-prepared to exercise genuine self-determination. They will need, firstly, political education to increase awareness of their interests if the possibility of a neo-colonial relationship with Portugal is to be averted.
  4. Poverty, backwardness and inexperience are not the only constraints on the free political development of Portuguese Timor. The prospect of self-determination is beginning to break down the unnatural isolation of Timor from its regional neighbours. The politically alert are conscious that Australia and Indonesia will overshadow Timor in the future and believe that they could circumscribe its independence and identity. Attitudes towards Australia and especially Indonesia, and the relations that develop with those countries, will have a strong bearing on future internal politics in Timor.

Developments since the Coup

  1. After initial hesitation, the administration in Timor fell in with the coup in Portugal. The Provincial Governor, Colonel Alves Aldeia, reputedly acted under pressure from young army officers. Following consultation with Lisbon, the Governor was confirmed in office and the program of the Portuguese armed forces movement was officially announced in Timor. The older order apparatus of repression was quickly disbanded, including the Political Police (DGS), the Corporate State Party (ANP) and the Censorship Commission. With few exceptions, DGS personnel have been returned to Portugal, where most face imprisonment. The proposed transfer of the former head of DGS in Angola to Timor was successfully resisted. Freedom of political expression and association in Timor now receives official encouragement, including the formation of political parties and a press that is open to different points of view. Elections to a Portuguese national constituent assembly are promised, as is a plebiscite on the political future of Timor. The elections will be held next March or April. The date of the plebiscite is less certain, in recognition of the need for adequate political preparation.
  2. Much of the drive for political progress in Timor seems to stem from the Army Chief of Staff, Major Metello, who is the official delegate in Timor of the Portuguese Junta. (Contrary to our previous impression, a separate junta was not established in Timor.) The colonial administration remains largely unchanged except for the liquidation of the repressive apparatus. But changes in administrative personnel are expected soon, possibly including the Governor. The new political climate challenges the security of vested interests among the Portuguese in Timor. Many Portuguese welcome greater political liberty but few are enthusiastic for self-determination that could lead to independence. Conservative Portuguese wish to perpetuate their privileged position by ensuring the continuing association of Timor with Portugal.

Political Parties

  1. Their interest is expressed through support for the strongest of the three political parties that has emerged in Timor, the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT), of which Carrascaloa and Oliveira are the principal leaders. While advocating political freedom and Timorese rights, the UDT also aims to preserve Timor’s association with Portugal in the name of ‘progressive self-determination’. The UDT leadership, which is native, places much faith in General Spinola’s promise that Portugal will not forget the overseas provinces that choose to remain with it. The Party’s leaders are conscious that an independent Timor would be very weak and they value the Portuguese connection in terms of Timor’s distinctive cultural identity. They emphasise the need for continuing Portuguese economic assistance to Timor. UDT could gain the reputation of an Uncle Tom party because of its expatriate backing. The opponents of the UDT say that it is supported by the administration and the attitude of some Portuguese administrators bears out this claim.
  2. The Timorese Social Democratic Association (ASDT), led by Xavier and Ramos Horta, represents itself as the party of the native ‘intellectuals’ who favour independence. (Few Timorese have received higher education. For the most part the ‘intellectuals’ have secondary or ecclesiastical education.) The ASDT leaders generally talk in terms of independence after thorough preparation, lasting from five to fifty years. But, last week, Ramos Horta returned to Timor from a visit to Jakarta advocating independence within a year. His radical attitude stemmed from the guarantee of Indonesian non-interference which he believed that he secured from Adam Malik in Jakarta. Horta probably sees himself as independent Timor’s first President. His visit to Jakarta was tactically clever because all parties recognise the decisive influence that Indonesia can exercise on Timor’s future. Horta plans to visit Australia shortly, presumably to seek political assurances that would have similar domestic usefulness to him.
  3. The Timorese Democratic People’s Association (APODETI), which is led by Osorio, advocates the integration of Portuguese Timor with Indonesia. Osorio argues that only association with Indonesia can achieve effective decolonisation as Timor is too weak to maintain viable independence and continuing association with Portugal would be neo-colonial in character. He sees separate provincial status in Indonesia as the best means of preserving Portuguese Timor’s distinctive identity and interests. The integration proposal has aroused hostility, particularly on the part of tribal chiefs in some regions. The adverse reaction was sufficient to prompt the Portuguese authorities to suggest changing the Party’s original name, which was the Association for the Integration of Timor with Indonesia (AITI). APODETI is the weakest of the three parties. But it is said to have support from some Timorese priests. APODETI is seen as the political heir of the 1959 rising against the Portuguese in Viqueque which was instigated by refugees from the Permesta/PRRI rebellion in Indonesia.
  4. At this stage in the political development of Timor, the parties represent little more than their organizing committees. The leadership of the three parties is drawn from the small native elite and is linked across party lines by family relationships. Differences between the parties probably reflect personal rivalry and competition among potential leaders as much as they do issues of principle. There is obvious scope and need for a unified national movement. Ramos Horta of ASDT says that, on Adam Malik’s advice, he will try to promote unity among the parties and is confident that he can win over at least APODETI. Horta seems to be emerging as the most skilful of the political leaders.

The Parties and Political Authority

  1. The sincerity of the party leaders and their wish to gain knowledge and experience is impressive. But their ill-developed party organisations might be exposed to outside manipulation, especially in the case of UDT. The parties have no mass base. They are still at a primary stage of organisation and explanation. The concept of competitive parties and political activity is alien to the great majority of Timorese. UDT has a strong advantage with the village people because it can evoke the symbol of the Portuguese flag.
  2. The parties have no exclusive claim to exercise future political authority. Tribal and regional divisions could provide an alternative basis to political alignments in Timor. Some of the tribal chiefs have great authority with their people and maintain private armies. (Such forces are not usually equipped with firearms.) The army itself is an obvious source of future political power. At present there are very few Timorese officers but an officer training scheme will be introduced this year. Current Portuguese army strength in Timor is about 4,000, including 1, 200 Portuguese personnel. The progressive officers in Timor have a strong sense of political mission. They see their role as to encourage orderly political development and to ensure that political competition is fair and peaceful. The army claims, probably with justification, that its presence prevents regression to tribal fighting among the Timorese.

The Chinese

  1. The problem of accommodating the Chinese could have an unsettling influence on political development in Timor. The Chinese keep to themselves and have resisted assimilation or identification with Timor. Most still hold Taiwan passports. Except for a few Portuguese enterprises, they dominate the commercial economy down to village level. The Timorese see the Chinese as rank exploiters. In the new political climate there is wild talk about expelling the Chinese or, at least, forced assimilation. With the introduction of political freedom, the Timorese adopted an assertive attitude towards Chinese property, claiming that it would soon be their own. The Chinese community was badly scared by a Timorese criminal attack on a Chinese family, which occurred in Dili in early May, and placed a political interpretation on the incident. Subsequent action by the Portuguese military police, who are now responsible for public order, seems to have restored Chinese confidence for the time being. While colonial authority lasts and the Portuguese are committed to orderly political procedures, they cannot afford to allow anti-Chinese violence.
  2. The Chinese are keeping their options open and are probably trying to assess with which of the emerging political forces they should identify themselves. Some have joined UDT but for the most part the Chinese have avoided open political commitment. Continuing association with Portugal would probably best suit their interests. They are attracted to Australia as an escape route. If Portugal recognised Peking, the Timor Chinese would adjust their allegiance to the mainland. PRC representation in Dili in place of the present Taiwan consulate could cause serious problems. The Timorese are opposed to the idea on grounds that it would provoke Indonesian intervention. Certainly, PRC representations in advance of re-establishment of a Chinese embassy at Jakarta could lead to tensions in Timor and difficulties with Indonesia. In view of the recent Chinese rejection of Portuguese overtures for recognition, the problem might not arise.

External Factors-Timor and the Region

  1. Because of their fear of Indonesian attack during the Soekarno era, the Portuguese have educated many Timorese to a deep suspicion of Indonesia. Today, the Portuguese have good relations with the Indonesian authorities in Western Timor and their past fears have relaxed. But the old attitude persists among Timorese. At the same time, it is said that many Timorese might be sympathetic to the idea of association with Indonesia if they felt free to express their opinion. But they are fearful that the Portuguese might return to Timor after decolonization as they did after the Pacific War. There seem to be regional and tribal differences on the question of association with Indonesia. It is hard to gauge the real character of Timorese opinion about Indonesia and the relative strength of different attitudes. Present opinion could change with increasing political maturity. The Indonesian Consul at Dili anxiously emphasises Indonesia’s attitude of non-interference and professes embarrassment at APODETI’s advocacy of integration with Indonesia. But there is some suspicion in Dili that a subordinate member of the Consulate staff is engaging in interventionist political activity.
  2. Timorese who fear Indonesia are apt to assume that Australia would support Timor against Indonesia. Some even talk about Australia succeeding to the Portuguese colonial mantle in Timor. A sentimental association with Australia lingers from the Pacific War, as do memories of the destruction caused by Australian operations. Some Timorese, notably the ASDT, claim that Australia has an unsettled debt to Timor dating from the War. There is some feeling that Timor’s Chinese population could be removed to Australia and that in its past attitude towards the people of Timor, Australia had displayed bias in favour of the Chinese. Politically educated Timorese assume that Australia will play an important role in the future of Timor as a protector and aid donor. There is a uniform demand, among Portuguese and Chinese as well as Timorese, for Australian representation in Timor. The administration want a mission for practical reasons. The Timorese incline to interpret the closure of the former Consulate as a betrayal of their interests in favour of Portuguese colonialism.
  3. Apart from Australia and Indonesia, the people of Timor, including the Portuguese authorities, are ignorant about their regional neighbours. They are unfamiliar with regional cooperation-which in the long run might provide a means of drawing Portuguese Timor into the regional community and of harmonising its relations with Indonesia. Among regional neighbours, PNG’s development experience could offer Portuguese Timor much by way of example.


  1. Authentic political life in Timor is just beginning and prediction of its future course is difficult. The lack of preparedness of the Timorese to exercise genuine self-determination in the near future is widely recognised. In a speech on 24 June the Governor made the ‘personal’ suggestion that self-determination should be deferred for at least five years. There is much to be said for a gradualist approach provided that in the meantime a serious effort is made to develop the political consciousness of the Timorese people and their power of choice. Some vested interests will resist such preparation. It cannot be assumed that the parties will emerge as the authoritative vehicles of political activity in Timor. Insecurity and violence are possible, particularly if Portuguese authority and the army’s determination to see that there is political fair play were weakened. The Chinese would be likely targets of violence. The Timorese may realise only through hard experience that the Chinese are economically indispensable. Disorder should not be assumed but it is a possibility that needs to be taken into account.
  2. Timor’s problems will be extemalised to some degree because of the importance of its links with Portugal, Indonesia and Australia. Expatriate sentiment in Timor favours continuing association with Portugal. But possession of Timor has lost its political significance for Portugal and Portuguese domestic opinion might come to regard Timor as an expensive and pointless liability. Slow and careful political development will probably suit Indonesia’s interests by increasing its chances of winning the confidence of the Timorese and perhaps of fostering the idea of integration. For Australia, an opportunity is emerging to develop stronger bilateral relations with Timor if it chooses to do so.

[NAA: Al0463, 80111311111, ii]

  • 1 The document is widely referred to as Savingram 26, i.e. by its Jakarta post serial number. It was also sent to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Lisbon, London, Manila, Moscow, Peking, Port Moresby, Singapore, Washington and Wellington.