Lisbon reopens sensitive file on E. Timor

The Portuguese government's publication of a secret military report on the fate of a former colony, East Timor, is a mark of its confidence in the loyalty of the armed forces.

The loss of Portugal's colonial empire in the mid-1970s was such a blow to the country's officer corps that some observers were surprised the government decided to reopen such a sensitive file so soon. The report blames the military for much of the tragedy of East Timor.

When the Portuguese armed forces overthrew the rightist dictatorship on April 25, 1974, their main aim was to end the African colonial wars that were draining their country of its youth.

The last thing on their minds was East Timor. As the newly-released report points out, there was no national liberation movement in East Timor in 1974, and indeed, the green-and-red Portuguese flag was even the object of a religious cult there. Seven years later, Portugal is hanging its head in shame over what happened to this forgotten colony.

Not only has East Timor suffered 300,000 people killed in war and famine in the last six years, but also it has lost its national identity. It has been incorporated as part of Indonesia.

The East Timorese fear that Jakarta plans to start a repopulation program with Javanese settlers to wipe their cultural identity off the map.

Before the 1974 revolution, the Portuguese armed forces regarded East Timor, some 10,000 miles from Lisbon, as a cushy holiday post where influential families had their sons posted to spare them the horrors of African wars. The Portuguese community consisted of only a few coffee planters, some political exiles sent to rot in a tropical backwater, civil servants not successful enough to be transferred anywhere else, and a small, sleepy garrison.

Those who came to power in Portugal after the 1974 revolution, and particularly the military, were obsessed with what would happen to the colonies in Africa and not much concerned about East Timor. The African colonies were bigger, richer, and much nearer home. And there were hundreds of thousands of Portuguese settlers in countries like Angola and Mozambique.

East Timor's last governor, Col. Mario Lemos Pires, stalks through the recently released military report like some kind of Portuguese Lord Jim, weaving his own downfall through his efforts to be scrupulously fair. The more he tried to carry out the idealistic aims of the officers who overthrew Portugal's rightist dictatorship and let the people choose their own destiny, the more he sowed the seeds of civil war.

Soldiers were sent out to help him keep rival factions apart, but they had only one desire - to get back to Portugal as soon as possible. The new recruits had no time for officers or discipline, and their message of anarchy soon infected the garrison. In the end, the governor's actions were increasingly restricted by what he could depend on his disaffected troops to do.

It was difficult for the colonel to invoke such old-fashioned ideas as patriotism and discipline when the political situation back home was becoming more radicalized every day and when any appeal to such sentiments immediately led to an officer being branded a reactionary or a colonialist.

The political divisions back in Portugal soon had their impact on the small garrison, with some of the officers deserting with their weapons to the side of local right-wing parties while others threw their lot in with the left.

Some just concentrated on saving their own skins, even refusing to mount guard when the port perimeter where the Portuguese troops and thousands of refugees had taken shelter in the East Timor capital of Dili came under fire when civil war broke out in August 1975.

Portugal's rulers were far too concerned with the chaos much closer to home in Angola and with the logistics of flying hundreds of thousands of settlers back to Lisbon from Africa to worry about East Timor. They themselves were fast running out of reliable troops at home and could not afford to send any reinforcements so far away.

The terrible isolation of the last Portuguese governor of East Timor comes through from his increasingly desperate appeals for help from his Lisbon superiors.

His pleas that the United Nations should be called in to take over fell on deaf ears and on Dec. 7, 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor. Colonel Lemos Pires and his small staff boarded a small Portuguese frigate from the small island off Dili where they had sheltered from the civil war and headed home without firing a shot.

The sudden loss of a colonial empire has been traumatic for Portugal's officer corps. It was a military defeat in which all the values they had fought for throughout the colonial wars were turned upside down. Military discipline collapsed. It is an experience from which the Portuguese armed forces are only just beginning to recover, and the military did not want the report released.

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