Commando News issue 15 2019


The Official Australian Commando News Magazine

freedom. Remarkably at the direction of Xanana

Gusmao and Taur Matan Ruak, this did not happen.

How did Fretilin and Falintil avoid succumbing to the

terrorism that has engulfed so many resistance

movements around the world? The character of the

resistance evolved and the ultimate decision to conduct

the guerrilla war in a principled way, without murdering

civilians or resorting to other atrocities, as so many such

movements have done, was by no means a foregone

conclusion. Indeed, in the early years there were distinct

failures of principle. Fretilin and Falintil did kill some

dissenting people and collaborators early on and there

was the internal failed coup in 1984.

Topography and Environment

The island of Timor is culturally quite diverse as there

are many language groupings. The further you go

eastward the more Melanesian are the people ethnically

and linguistically. While West Timor is comparatively

flatter, East Timor has a rugged mountain spine that

hampers conventional military operations and the

ground provides some assistance to guerilla warfare.

There are karst cave areas and interestingly Z Special

Unit had a discrete course on caving relative to Timor in

the Second World War.

Falintil also used the caves as an underground asset.

The topography afforded Falintil the ability to hide

noting that throughout the 1990s they were a very small

and reasonably inactive guerrilla force. Their aim was to

survive so that in the event of international support they

could rise to take control. The Resistance was always

stronger in the eastern half of the country because of

ethnic reasons and probably also due to the Indonesians

wiping out the resistance on the border early on. After

the encirclement disaster at Matabian, Falintil became

much more centred on the east.


Throughout the struggle there were many forced and

self-initiated displacements of parts of, and even of the

total population thereby making the populous

inherently and strategically mobile. Fretilin and Falintil

suffered major divisions and schisms along political and

ethnic lines which impacted the characteristic of

mobility in this guerrilla war.

Their Mount Matebian redoubt, which was the fixed

defence strategy soon failed. Falintil dispersed and

much of the movement in the west of the country

disintegrated particularly from February 1979 with the

surrender of some key Falintil. 1979 was a year of

strategic defeat with 90 percent of the fighters and

weapons lost from the positional-based defence

disaster requiring a significant change in strategy.

With the transition to guerrilla warfare in 1988,

Falintil became more mobile, espousing the guerrilla

creed of ‘shots to the north, head south’ supported by

the clandestine organization inside population centres

and resettlement camps.

However, after the fall of Mount Matebian and

Natarbora in 1978, Fretilin and Falintil were then only

really operating in part of the centre and mainly in the

east. The March to August 1983 ceasefire also ended

badly for Fretilin and Falintil, which was then followed

by the putsch crisis of early 1984. By late 1980 Falintil

had less than 100 fighters. In 1996 there were about

1,888 men and by 1998 about 242 men. Their ranks

then swelled by August 1999 to about 1,500 fighters.


The characteristic of surprise in guerrilla warfare

certainly applied in the tactical ambushing actions by

Falintil. It was less so strategically applied in the field,

however several startling actions kept the movement in

the international spotlight including the requests for

political asylum at various embassies in Jakarta from

1993 onwards and the demonstration at the US

Embassy in Jakarta in 1994, the protests at the Dutch

and Russian Embassies in Jakarta in 1995 and the

awarding of the Noble Peace prize to Belo and Ramos-

Horta in 1996.

The demonstrations during the Pope’s visit in 1988

embarrassed the Indonesian Government. They showed

the existence of an indigenous resistance movement to

the outside world and it galvanized the population.

The Political Situation

Who would have thought that the economic crisis in

Asia and the downfall of President Suharto would be the

trigger points for subsequent jubilation in East Timor

after twenty four years of oppressive occupation by the

Indonesian Army?

In hindsight the Asian financial crisis precipitated

independence. That crisis caused the downfall of

Suharto and when it brought Habibie to the presidency,

the rest was history. Without Habibie’s decision, there

would probably not have been any popular consultation

or any United Nations and INTERFET involvement in

East Timor.

In 1998-1999 Falintil were weak and their strongest

cards were the Timorese youth movements. Without the

political crisis it is probable that East Timor would still

be under Indonesian rule albeit with considerable Acehstyle

provincial autonomy

East Timor remained unstable throughout the

occupation and it belied constant Indonesian propa -

ganda to the contrary. It explains why East Timor

remained a political and psychological embarrassment

to Jakarta.

There is no systematic account of Indonesian

casualties but most probably occurred during skirmishes

and ambushes in rural areas. There are 3,804 names on

the Seroja monument in Jakarta consisting of 2,777

Indonesian soldiers and police and 1,527 East Timorese

irregulars who were killed in action. These names are

combat deaths from many units right across Indonesia

and they are higher than those acknowledged during

the occupation.

The number of Indonesian wounded can only be

guessed, but with the three to one, wounded to killed in

action ratio, there was likely about 10,800 casualties. By

40 COMMANDO NEWS ~ Edition 15 I 2019

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