Memories of the Troubles in Timor


As a 25-year-old reporter in Perth in 1966 I had more zeal than worldly wisdom. I’d never been north of Geraldton and it was a brave decision of my editor at the West Australian, Griff Richards, to send me on a three-week reporting trip to Portuguese Timor with photographer Richie Hann in tow.

I made a complete ass of myself. Before the first week was up the Portuguese governor, José Alberty Correia, summoned the Australian Consul John Dalrymple Colquhoun-Denvers, an ex-artillery officer, and told him my safety could no longer be guaranteed. I would do well to get on the Fokker Friendship to Darwin next morning.[1]

I’d spent the day with the consul in his Land Rover touring the hills to Maubisse amid much bonhomie. He dropped me at the hotel at dusk. As I was changing for dinner (not exactly black tie) a scream at the back of the hotel split the air. A woman murdered? No, just a goat for dinner having its throat cut. Strolling later, I was swooped on by a consular car and rushed to the furious Consul, smarting from a two-hour diatribe about me from the Governor. Barely suppressing his rage, he said I’d been behaving like a second rate juvenile spy. “I won’t hear the last of this for months. If you’d just played things quietly, people would have come to you!”

During the Darwin stopover I filed the story of my own expulsion, describing myself judiciously in the third person. In those weird days reporters didn’t try to become the news. From my bland report:

Mr Denvers told them [Thomas and Hann] of complaints that Mr Thomas had entered a military barracks in Dili without having obtained permission from military authorities and that he had asked three junior officers for information about Portuguese military strength on the island. He said that the Portuguese also considered that Mr Thomas had been objectionable in questioning troops about Portuguese politics. The junior officers had sent written reports on their conversations with Mr Thomas to their commanding officer.

Mr Denvers said the Portuguese considered the two men’s safety would be endangered if they remained on the island because the sentry at the barracks had been sentenced to five days solitary confinement for having permitted Mr Thomas to enter, and other Portuguese soldiers might take individual action against them.

He said the two men had not been expelled but it was in their interest to fly to Darwin on the aircraft leaving this morning…

Tourists Minister Barbosa and the Governor had [earlier] told Thomas he was free to go where he pleased on the island.

The strength of the military garrison was common knowledge on the island and Mr Barbosa, who was president of the Portuguese Union National political party, had given him freely the information about the troops.

The European population of the island consisted largely of soldiers, Mr Thomas said. He had talked to them openly about Portuguese affairs…

I must also have typed a long feature about Timor, because in my old scrapbook I’ve scribbled on it: “Error due to Darwin telex operator”. My total four reports and an attack on them are here.

The reason my trip lasted even five days was that External Affairs Minister Paul Hasluck had given me a letter of recommendation. Paul had been a sub-editor and mentor to my father, Pete, on The West Australian in the 1930s and was happy to do Pete’s son an apparently harmless favour.

I guess Governor Correia was worried that expelling me might create a diplomatic breach with Australia, as distinct from “advising” me to sod off. Australia was Portugal’s sole ally in the region and the Indonesians were itching to push in, although this didn’t actually happen until a decade later. I now know that in 1964 High Command ordered the Indonesian Frogman Unit in Surabaya to send an infiltration team to East Timor. The team spent five months as — literally — horse traders (pedagang kuda) stirring up trouble.[2]

I must say that, after my impromptu inspection of the barracks, I bumped into a group of soldiers in the street. One who spoke English ranted about how Portuguese soldiers were the world’s fiercest. His mates crowded menacingly but allowed me on my way.

I think the Governor was also perturbed about me getting pally with the Indonesian Consul, Dr Sorosa, who had photos of Indonesian military might on his walls, such as Tupolev “Badger” bombers.[3] One evening Dr Sorosa stopped by me in his Mercedes in a dark street. I hopped in, the car being pretty full already with three administrators from Kupang. He was driving them home after a good dinner. I interviewed till midnight, taking shorthand in the dark. [4] I know this because I finished my story, “The mosquitos finally broke up the party.” I assume someone reported this odd encounter to the Portuguese.

My chats were admittedly political. Back in Perth I wrote,

[The Indonesian Consul] criticised the heavy Portuguese spending on their army in Timor — I calculated soldiers’ salaries alone to equal about two-thirds of the civil [$A3m] budget. He said that because the Indonesia army – if it wanted to – could sweep over Portuguese Timor like an avalanche, the Portuguese were wasting money keeping even a nominal army there. The money should be developing the country, he said.

When I first hit Dili, the Governor plied me with cake and read with respect my letter of recommendation. He extolled his island’s peace and progress. He invited me to go anywhere, talk to anyone, and send news to Australian tourists of his happy isle, this precious stone set in the silver sea. Lacking much adult perspective, I took him at his word.[5]

Actually, eight of his less happy breed were arrested only a year earlier for plotting to blow up him and his advisers with hand grenades, as revenge for Portugal’s brutal put-down of a revolt six years earlier.[6] I’ll get round to that later.

One incident still baffles me. Walking dusty Dili’s boulevards, I spotted $A5-10 worth of local banknotes in the weeds. Who lost them in that poverty-stricken town and what odds that I’d find them?

One evening disaffected soldiers dropped in, but when I tried to visit one next day, his frightened wife slammed the door. I figure they’d re-assessed me as a loose cannon under watch by the “PIDE” secret police.

I was B-grade chess champ of Fremantle (no big deal, let me tell you). In Dili I’d ask, “Do you play chess?” Obviously a code, the authorities imagined.

On the hill tour, the consul’s Land Rover flew the Australian flag. I wrote,

Men and boys on their indefatigable treks to market, would hastily upend the hundredweight of firewood on their heads to give us the slow Portuguese salute, a mixture of respect, servility and sometimes fear in their eyes.

 Colquhoun-Denvers played this down as an odd colonial relic. But fact-checking my 1966 juvenilia last month, I chanced upon a meticulously-documented 100-page monograph from 2009 about the failed 1959 revolt. I located author and ex-Brigadier Ernie Chamberlain by phone near Geelong and interrupted his research on Australian and North Vietnamese wartime units.[7] Reading his Timor books and studies jolted me into the realities of Timor around my 1966 visit.

EVEN in the late 1950s – and maybe beyond – the exploited villagers were disciplined with torture instruments, jocularly called “education devices”.[8] In the Viqueque district, central to the 1959 revolt, chiefs and landowners enforced village labor with internal passports, whips called chouriços – or ‘sausages’ and the “palmatoria”, a ferrule 2cm thick and 40cm long with a special head for beating a peasant’s palms. One Timorese explained, “It’s really painful. Sometimes they would beat someone’s hand until the hand became swollen and was bleeding. If they hit you a lot, you couldn’t use your hand for weeks. … Sometimes people got it simply because they could not afford to pay the imposto (head tax).”[9]

Australia’s Timor Oil Company signed on laborers for $A90-300 a year. Administrators doled out a paltry $A21 and pocketed the rest, locking up anyone refusing to work.[10] Farmers were forced to sell their livestock at low prices, while the regime spent little on education and infrastructure. [11] A Lisbon high official visiting in 1956 was appalled and issued a 17-page demand for reforms, which was ignored as soon as he left. My own reports bore little relation to the reality:

Eduardo Barbosa, chief of public works in Portuguese Timor, switched off the ABC News on his shortwave transistor. “They have executed four ex-ministers in the Congo,” he told me. “This is what happens when you give people independence before they are ready for it.”

He screwed a monocle under his left eyebrow and ran a finger round the open neck of his shirt. “One time our natives would not work,” he said. “All they wanted was to feast. We made them plant rice. They would have starved without a crop.

“The United Nations said, ‘They are slave labour. You must not do that.’ Now if they want to work they can, if they do not our government will not let them starve. They are better off than the peons of Portugal. The peons who do not work, they die.”

Just as Waterloo was preceded by Duchess Charlotte’s ball at Brussels, the Timor revolt involved an anniversary ball at the sporting men’s Club Benfica in Dili.

 Informers – including a jilted girlfriend and the Bishop of Dili – had divulged rebel plans to the authorities months earlier. The Indonesian consul deferred the plot to the December New Year celebrations when fireworks would mask the opening attack. This was for a mixed band of Indonesian refugees and Timorese to seize arms depots in Dili, release prisoners and give them machetes to kill revellers and blockade the town. Outside Dili, local officials would be invited to a New Year party and beheaded.[12]

The army suspected freelance rebels might still attack the ball on May 27. The plotting was Dili’s worst-kept secret with people arguing in restaurants and the Australian Consul, Francis Whittaker, speculating about bombs being thrown among the revellers. The army upgraded security, and officers (attending out of uniform) waltzed with pistols in their pockets. Whittaker went to the ball anyway, dancing till 3am “without any bangs”, as he put it with admirable sang froid.[13]

Within days authorities rounded up 15 suspects in Dili, precipitating an uprising by provincial rebels to forestall their own arrest. They hoped at least for international attention, but nothing public reached the outside world, even Portugal.

They acquired rifles at Uatolori town and at midnight broke into offices at nearby Viqueque. After bashing the guards and throwing them out of upper windows, they seized 70 old rifles but with mismatched bullets.[14] Administrator Ramos escaped by jeep, evading roadblocks and ambushes.

The main battle was at the small fort at Baguia, pitting rebels against prepared defences of machine guns and grenade launchers. Rebels’ bullets were exploding in their rifles and they had to turn their heads away, so their aim was poor. The Portuguese, further armed with mortars and bazookas, soon retook the districts. One captured leader was whipped till his back was in shreds and an Indonesian captive died under torture. Others were shot on the spot and Portuguese soldiers crushed one man’s head with a rock.[15]

To the east, rebels lost to a 450-strong force of loyal arraiais (warriors). With army protection, they laid waste to tribal enemies’ villages, killing dozens and stealing property and cattle. Poor and ignorant villagers beheaded even children to get bounties per head offered by the Portuguese. The army took seven rebels to the Bebui River and Administratr Ramos had them cut them down with automatic weapons fire. Helpers mutilated the bodies with spears and machetes and threw them in the river. (There’s now a simple memorial of river stones at the site).

Some 300 Timorese were killed (Portuguese casualties – zero). They tortured prisoners for confessions and dumped them in a derelict freighter in Dili harbour in unbearable heat before exiling them to Lisbon, Angola and Mozambique. The Portuguese burnt down the Dili “Timorese-only” club, considered a centre of anti-colonial subversion.[16] Viqueque Administrator Artur Ramos concluded his report:

I still wish to say that, in my modest opinion, the repression of this movement was much too benevolent and can encourage the repetition of such an event.[17]

And Prime Minister Salazar informed the UN in December 1960:

Any person of good faith can see for himself that peace and complete calm reign in our overseas territories, without the use of force and merely by the habit of peaceful living in common.[18]

After the revolt Australia installed W.A. Luscombe as consul in Dili, apparently a full-time Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) officer.

Whether the Indonesian government itself had endorsed the revolt remains a mystery. Consul Jakub certainly stirred things up on a freelance basis. He was upset if not deranged over his wife’s death in the Dili hospital in 1957, which he blamed on Portuguese neglect.[19] Ernie Chamberlain finishes his account:

Perhaps future reviews and studies by Timorese scholars may yet more adequately recognise the sacrifices of the rebels and the suffering inflicted on the villagers of Viqueque and Baucau. The Rebellion might still find broader recognition and acceptance as a “legitimate” contribution to the independence struggle of the Timorese people.[20]

I was lucky I didn’t meet a worse fate on my Timor trip. I’d begged the Indonesian Consul for a visa but left before I got one. At that time the Indonesian army and death squads had been murdering 500,000-plus Communist sympathisers and other minorities (with CIA and, allegedly, Australian help). My bull-in-china-shop interviewing might have got me killed in some nameless village. I did write third-hand regarding Indonesian Timor, “A small girl described to one traveller how she had seen ten Communists led to a hillside and shot.”

‘Communists are outside the law,’ the [Indonesian] Consul told me. Dr Sorosa said they had moved outside the umbrella of Indonesia’s Pantjasila – the five principles of belief in God, nationalism, social justice, humanitarianism and sovereignty of the people. So they cannot live in Indonesia.

From embarrassment I’ve put off writing this piece for half a century. I knew that I would one day, and preserved my four 1966 Timor notebooks of shorthand (pictured), which have followed me through multiple jobs, cities and marriages. Within another half century I’ll get round to transcribing them.


 Tony Thomas’s collection “Foot Soldier in the Culture Wars” ($29.95) is available from publisher Connor Court


[1] The Consulate in Dili was more important than you would think. Portugal had no embassy in Canberra, and Dili handled all our diplomatic traffic.

[2] Faltering Steps – Independence Movements in East Timor – 1940s to the early 1970s – by Ernie Chamberlain (Edition 3, 2010) p142

[3] Whether the Badgers were airworthy is a separate issue.

[4] “Mr Ataupa, a senior education administrator told me he was one of the island’s first high school graduates and first teachers. He taught three schools in one building – the first from 7.30am to 1pm; another from 1pm to 5pm and a third till 10pm. This was how they had done the impossible, he said.”

[5] Julia Gillard said she was “young and naïve” at 31, six years later than me at 25.

[6] Chamberlain, p99

[7] Brigadier – Head Australian Defence Staff, Jakarta 1996-1998. UN service East Timor in period 1999-2006; strategic policy advisor to Timor-Leste Defence Minister 2004-2005 (Australian Department of Defence contract). Specialties: Linguist: Vietnamese, Indonesian languages; Colloquial speaker: Khmer (Defence Attache Phnom Penh 1991-1993). Written/published eight books/monographs on political history of East Timor. Advising on “enemy documents”, Vietnam War.

[8] Faltering Steps, p36

[9] Rebellion, Defeat and Exile -The 1959 Uprising in East Timor. Ernie Chamberlain, 2009, p26

[10] Faltering Steps p51-2

[11] Australia was interested only in security angles. The Consulate reported in the mid-1950s: “The indigenous native is very primitive, and it is usually considered that his intelligence is far below that which would be required to absorb communist doctrines or any other form of political thought. … he is generally regarded as a very loyal person and obedient to the Native Chiefs who in turn are responsible to the Administration. The loyalty of these Native Chiefs is unquestioned.”

[12] Rebellion, Defeat and Exile P34

[13] ibid P34

[14] ibid P41

[15] ibid p46-52

[16] ibid p67

[17] ibid p51

[18] ibid p66

[19] ibid, p28

[20] ibid p99

2 thoughts on “Memories of the Troubles in Timor

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    Interesting that you illustrate with stamps.
    Shortly after Timor l’Este in 2002, I sent a number of First Day Covers and Timor stamp sets to the authorities, with some money, asking if the top guys would autograph them and send them back
    The outcome? No signatures, no returns, no money. Geoff S

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Tony, this brings back many – mostly happier – memories for me. In January 1969 I got married on impulse in Darwin, with our witnesses and wedding guests being drawn from a group of rather adventurous hippies we’d met in the pub. They were only to happy to help us party our marriage into existence. After the ceremony we retired to the Don pub beer garden (heavily aboriginal in patronage) for beers and more beers, the whole beer garden many times toasting our new status. We then said our farewells and departed for Timor on the $30 one-way TAA Fokker Friendship flight to Baucau, where East Timor’s only airport was the one left over from WW2. In Baucau for our honeymoon we found ourselves in a village where women still did washing in the river. A Portuguese-run hotel provided a decent way-station from the flight for the Ambassador and others before taking the rigors of the rough road trip to Dili., including us, splashing out on honeymoon. We shared a pleasant Portuguese meal with that entourage and were so charmed we decided to stay a few more days in the lovely room next to the dovecote. The next morning, awakened by screams rather than cooing doves, I watched in horror as the over-bearing wife of the hotel owner berated a servant for some small misdemeanor by slapping him furiously around the face. We were in a seriously Colonial place. The trip by Chinese Bus to Dili confirmed that. We saw one piece of heavy equipment in the whole island – a broken down old tractor. A side trip in this truck took us to a local school, where the children and teacher were in education’s Early Chalk Age. The children had no pencils, pens and paper, only wipeable slates, and the teacher had a backboard as his only educational tool There were six books in Portuguese showing simple words and pictures. And that was it. Plus one old map of Portugal. The bus then went on to a delivery at a nearby coffee plantation where the workers lived in shocking conditions and were very poorly paid. On each occasion we were told how happy everyone was but we were beginning to be more than doubtful. The military presence was strong. During our few days in Baucau we did make friends with some young Portuguese soldiers, sharing our single bottle of Portuguese Lacrima Christi with them, the last one in the Chinese general store, which brought them to tears remembering home. We put actual flowers in their gun barrels and one said to me with doleful eyes that ‘e was not an ‘ippy but ‘e ‘ated war. Timor was seen as a cushy post for mandatory National Service as an alternative the Algeria nightmare.
    Once in Dili we met up in the insalubrious but very cheap Miramar Hotel with a similar group to our Darwin friends (you always ask for the Miramar anywhere in Asia our Darwin friends had forewarned us). But this lot were were on the end leg of the ‘overland’ hippie trail from the UK to Australia, through Afghanistan at that time then wending a way down to Timor to pick up TAA to Darwin – and civilisation. We had intended to go on to the UK on the trail but were now pulled back by the tales of hardship told, which was obvious in the physical condition of some at the Miramar, plus the news had come through that we had both been awarded Syd Uni P/G full scholarships which it seemed churlish to refuse.
    We holed up in Dili and returned with this group to Darwin, and thence back to newly married life as post-graduate students. We had arrived, however, with some supplies for a longer journey. These we shared freely with our new friends. The biggest hit was a large tin of Australian cheese; a cornucopia in itself for these broken travellers after their many rice-enriched months.
    In the Miramar under it’s creaking fan we held in our large room a small salon, where tales were told, food and drugs were shared, and a couple of chapters of the only book anyone had not traded was read aloud. It was my book, a history text, called “The Merchant of Prado”. As an interlude to the Beatles and the Stones it entertained the crowd nobly as I read it out aloud, two chapters an afternoon.
    There wasn’t much else to see and do if you were not a busy journalist on the make as you were.
    And on honeymoon, one is never really bored. Anyway, Tony, I’m glad you finally put pen to paper about lost times past and recalled in me some of mine. 🙂

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