Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor

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Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor


LEADERS: Xanana Gusmao; José Ramos-Horta



The Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (in Portuguese, Frente Revolucionária de Timor Leste Independente, or Fretilin) was formed as a radical left-wing party supporting the independence of East Timor in 1974. The group's original name was Timorese Social Democratic Association (Associação Social Democrática Timor, ASDT), and its military wing was the Armed Forces for the National Liberation of East Timor (Forças Armadas de Libertação Nacional de Timor-Leste, Falintil).


The Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) led the fight for East Timor's independence from Indonesia. The group was originally organized in 1974 as a radical left-wing party to promote the independence of East Timor at the end of Portuguese rule in the Indonesian colony.

Portugal considered East Timor an overseas province for more than 400 years, when it first established colonial authority. In 1960, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly declared that territories under Portuguese control did not fit the definition of non-self-governing territories, according to Chapter XI of the UN Charter.

It was not until a 1974 government change in Lisbon, the capitol of Portugal, that Chapter IX was recognized in Portuguese law. This change began a period called the "Carnation Revolution," when Portugal modified its Constitutional definition of an overseas province. The new definition meant Portugal recognized that its colonies, including East Timor, should be allowed to determine their sovereignty status. Portugal was presenting the opportunity for its colonies to gain independence.

A law was passed in 1975, which called for the formation of a transitional government in East Timor. The transitional government would assist East Timor in holding an election of a popular assembly in 1976. Finally, termination of Portuguese administration was planned for October 1978.

The people of East Timor began to prepare for their self-determination by organizing politically. The Fretilin party came into existence as an advocate for immediate independence from Portugal. Additional parties were also formed. The Timorese Democratic Union (União Democrática Timorense, UDT) favored continued association with Portugal throughout the independence process. The Timorese Popular Democratic Association (Associação Popular Democrática Timorense, Apodeti) pushed for East Timor to become an autonomous province within Indonesia.

Fretilin and UDT tried to forge a coalition on the common objective of independence. This was short-lived, though, as Fretilin appeared to be increasingly left wing, and UDT moved into closer contact with Indonesia.

In June 1975, Fretilin boycotted a conference convened by Portugal in Macau to discuss a gradual plan for decolonization. UDT and Apodeti both attended the meetings. Fretilin was unhappy with the inclusion of Apodeti. Fretilin claimed factions within Indonesia supported the party.

Relations between these three parties worsened rapidly in the second half of 1975. Open hostilities began, and East Timor fell into a civil war. In August, the Portuguese governor and administration withdrew from the mainland of East Timor to the island of Atauro. At the same time, covert Indonesian forces began operating in nearby West Timor.

In November 1975, Fretilin, which was reported to control most of the territory, declared the independence of East Timor. Fretilin was relying on the support of the Portuguese local military forces and on weapons left by the Portuguese. Two days later, though, a coalition of pro-Indonesian parties (primarily UDT and Apodeti) proclaimed East Timor independent and integrated with Indonesia. On December 7, Indonesia launched a naval, air, and land invasion of East Timor. Indonesia fought against Fretilin resistance and was able to increase its territorial control. Indonesia claimed to be fighting against a threat of communism in East Timor.

Indonesia claimed to establish a Regional Popular Assembly. At the Assembly's only meeting in May 1976, those gathered decided to ask Indonesia to formally integrate East Timor into the country. Indonesian President Suharto declared Law 7/76, which named East Timor the twenty-seventh province. Indonesia claimed that the people of East Timor, through the Assembly, had exercised their self-determination rights.



Xanana Gusmao, born in 1946, was a prominent member of the Fretilin party. As the leader of Falintil, Gusmao fought against the Indonesian military forces from the bush. He spent more than six years in prison or under house arrest. Just before East Timor received its independence in 2002, Gusmao was elected president. However, he ran as an independent, not as a member of the Fretilin party. Prior to being elected, he said he did not want the job of president, saying he would rather farm pumpkins or be a photographer. However, there was no other serious contender when the time came for an election. As President, he has appealed for reconciliation with those who carried out violent acts during the fight for independence. He was born in the town of Manatuto, the second of nine children. He studied for four years at a Jesuit seminary in Dare and did three years of required service with the Portuguese. Later, he worked with a department in the local government during the colonial administration.


José Ramos-Horta, born on December 26, 1949, in Dili, was one of the most influential leaders of the Fretilin organization in bringing attention to the issues of self-determination of East Timor. Just before the invasion of Indonesia in East Timor, Ramos-Horta was named the Minister of External Relations and Information for the Fretilin Party. Ramos-Horta left East Timor in 1975, but served as an active spokesperson for East Timor issues at the UN and in front of other international bodies. He was named the Permanent Representative to the UN for the East Timorese independence movement for over ten years, beginning in 1975. He has studied International Relations, International Law, and Peace Studies. He is the author of Funu: The Unfinished Saga of East Timor, and other books. In 1996, Ramos-Horta won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The UN did not recognize the authority of the Popular Assembly and therefore did not endorse its decision to integrate East Timor into Indonesia. Likewise, Portugal did not give up its power of administration over East Timor. It made a constitutional amendment, saying Portugal was bound to promote and safeguard the right to self-determination and independence of East Timor. The Portuguese president was given authority to achieve these goals.

Fretilin named José Ramos-Horta a minister for communications and external affairs in 1975. He became the primary contact between journalists and Fretilin. He was also an important link to the UN. Ramos left East Timor just before the attack by Indonesia in 1976. He helped convince the UN Security Council to pass resolutions calling on Indonesia to withdrawal its forces from East Timor.

Fretilin continued to resist East Timor's integration into Indonesia by means of its armed wing, the Armed Forces for the National Liberation of East Timor (Falintil). In 1981, Xanana Gusmão became the leader of Falintil. Falintil used guerilla warfare to carry out its campaign. There are estimates that up to 200,000 people were killed as a result of the fighting. Many displaced citizens died of famine and disease.

The pro-independence activists suffered many human rights violations by the Indonesian forces, but there was little international attention given to the situation. This changed in November 1991, when Indonesian forces opened fire on a pro-independence demonstration near a cemetery in the capital, Dili. As many as 200 people were reported killed in the attack. Images and reports from journalists on the scene impacted international opinion of the situation. Many foreign governments, particularly in the West, began making policies supporting the self-determination of East Timor.

Gusmão was captured in 1992 and convicted in 1993 of trying to overthrow the Indonesian Government. He was given a life sentence, which was later reduced.

The resignation of Suharto as president of Indonesia was a turning point towards self-determination for East Timor. In January 1999, after President Habibie came into power, Indonesia indicated it would revisit the idea of East Timor independence.

Gusmão was released in February 1999 and placed under house arrest. Because of violence from anti-independence activists, Gusmão ordered guerrillas to continue fighting.

Indonesia and Portugal signed an agreement in May 1999 to allow the people of East Timor to vote on their future. The UN organized a referendum which took place the following August. The results showed 78% of voters favored independence. However, anti-independence militia, aided by the Indonesian military, carried out attacks that killed over 1,000 people. An Australian peacekeeping force arrived to restore order. Later in 1999, the Indonesian parliament recognized the outcome of the referendum, and the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor was established. Gusmão was released in October 1999.


Portugal promises to allow colonies self-determination; Fretilin and other parties form.
Civil war breaks out between pro-independence and pro-Indonesian parties; independence declared separately by Fretilin and pro-Indonesian parties; Indonesia invades and annexes East Timor; period of armed struggle begins, killing 200,000 people.
Over 100 independence activists killed at a funeral.
Gusmão is captured.
Indonesia reconsiders granting East Timor independence; Gusmão moved to house arrest; anti-independence violence erupts in East Timor; East Timorese vote for independence; 1,000 people killed by anti-independence militia backed by Indonesian military; Australian peace-keeping forces arrive; UN Transitional Administration in East Timor established.
Fretilin wins fifty-five of eighty-eight Constituent Assembly seats.
Xanana Gusmão wins presidential election; East Timor officially becomes independent.

In 2001, the Fretilin party candidates won fifty-five of eighty-eight seats in East Timor's Constituent Assembly. Gusmão was elected president in 2002. East Timor's official independence was declared on the May 20, 2002.


The leftist coup that took over Portugal in 1974 was responsible for the change in policy for dealing with its colonies. Fretilin was also a Marxist organization, given arms by Portugal when hostilities began in 1975. This gave Fretilin the much-needed support in the beginning of its conflicts with the pro-integration militias. Marxist leadership and civil war was also taking place in the former Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Angola.

Falintil acted on behalf of Fretilin throughout the party's ongoing struggle for East Timor independence. They followed the lead of Gusmão, who referred to the struggle as the "sacred ideal" of independence. There were many Falintil camps in the East Timorese bush, planning and organizing their next moves. Many of the fighters left their families and were always on the run in the harsh terrain of East Timor. Compared to the militia forces, the Falintil were often outnumbered, and were not as well armed. Falintil fighters were subject to sickness and starvation and were tortured when caught. The Falintil fighters numbered over 27,000 during the entire conflict. These numbers were reduced during the militia violence that followed the vote for independence.

Falintil actively targeted the pro-integration militias, which grew in number as pro-independence campaigning increased in strength and effectiveness. Falintil killed Indonesian soldiers and seized army weapons in East Timor. These techniques were met with reprisal attacks, which included attacks on civilian supporters of independence.

Gusmão had close control of Falintil. As tensions between the pro-independence and pro-integration sides escalated toward the time to vote on independence, it became clear that steps needed to be taken to disarm the militias. At the time, Falintil was already operating under a ceasefire that Gusmão had ordered, which was being maintained. However, when the Indonesian military openly endorsed the militia and admitted to providing supplies and training, Gusmão authorized Falintil to fight the militias. Fretinil claimed it was protecting the people of East Timor.

In 1998, a UN team determined in an annual All-Inclusive Intra-East Timorese Dialogue that many former advocates for the integration of East Timor had become dissatisfied with Indonesian rule, and were pushing for independence. The UN discovered that the generation that had been educated during Indonesian rule were even more adamant about independence than their parents. Outward activism for independence was growing in the mid 1990s. This provided pro-independence forces in East Timor with further international support.

Fretilin and other independence movements worked together under Gusmão to form the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT). The CNRT solidified the coalition of movements for independence in East Timor.

Gusmão, while under house arrest, provided input to the negotiations for self-determination between Portugal, Indonesia, and the UN in 1999. Gusmão was uncompromising in his determination to ensure that a referendum would be carried out to determine East Timor's fate. He also agreed to the ongoing participation of Indonesia in the process.

When concerns over security grew stronger leading up to the referendum, a UN representative in East Timor called for the creation of a peace commission involving both pro-independence and pro-integration factions. This was something Gusmão advocated. He saw it as a way to calm the situation and a good opportunity for the UN to begin establishing a presence in East Timor. However, the Indonesian government did not want the commission to proceed, claiming it was too early to involve all concerned parties in discussions about East Timor's future.

During the formation of the East Timor political system after the independence vote, Fretilin provided much guidance. The prominence of the organization was further demonstrated by the large number of seats won by the Fretilin party in East Timor's Constituent Assembly.


During the 1970s, Indonesia denied any claims to East Timor territory. Indonesia was a former Dutch colony, and East Timor had always been aligned with Portugal. The Indonesian government claimed the threat of communism in the region as reason for resisting the struggle of Fretilin and other organizations to make East Timor independent.

Australia sided with Indonesia on the issue of integration in 1978. They were eager to settle disputes concerning the borders of the seabed in the Timor Sea and felt this was easier to accomplish if East Timor was part of Indonesia. It was known for some years that oil and other minerals were abundant in the Timor Sea. Even during the late 1990s, Australia claimed the interests of all—East Timor, Indonesia, and Australia—were best served if East Timor remained part of Indonesia. However, Australia began pushing for the importance of self-determination. The issue of natural resources may have been a driving factor as to why Indonesia wanted to annex East Timor.

The United States supported Indonesia in the 1970s. The Nation reports that the United States continued to give aid, including military aid, to Indonesia as they took on the pro-independence group in East Timor. However, the United States began contributing to, and supporting the efforts of, the UN to guide the process of self-determination in East Timor.

There are arguments that a long struggle for East Timor was unavoidable considering its state of development following colonization. East Timor is said to have been unprepared for self-governance in 1975. Very few East Timorese were educated. There was one secondary school for a population of over 700,000. The literacy rate was 10%.


Fretilin began the fight for East Timor's independence in 1975. The continued struggle of Falintil guerrillas over two and a half decades, eventually gave the people of East Timor a chance for self-determination.

The chaos in East Timor during the 1990s forced all sides to work on a solution. The impact on civilian life grabbed the attention of the international community and persuaded them to get involved. The assistance of the UN was vital in making headway towards peace and eventually proved instrumental in assisting East Timor in becoming a self-governing state.

Fretilin continues to remain a strong force in East Timor. They hold a large number of seats in the country's Constituent Assembly, and the party's former leader, Gusmão, is still in power. In April 2005, East Timor and Indonesia settled border agreements. East Timor and Australia agreed on a strategy for sharing the billions of dollars in revenue that is expected from Timor Sea resources—primarily oil and natural gas deposits.



Martin, Ian. Self Determination in East Timor, International Peace Academy Occasional Paper Series. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001.


"Fighters on the ropes." Time International. May 26, 2003: vol. 161, i. 21, p. 46.

"East Timor, Indonesia, and U.S. Policy." U.S. Department of State Dispatch. March 16, 1992: vol. 3, no. 11, p. 213(4).

Kohen, Arnold S. "Making an Issue of East." The Nation. Feb. 10, 1992: vol. 254, no. 5, p. 162(2).

Web sites

BBC News World Edition "Victory for Timor Freedom Party." 〈〉 (accessed October 1, 2005).

BBC News World Edition. "Timeline: East Timor." 〈〉 (accessed October 1, 2005).

BBC News World Edition. "Profile: Xanana Gusmao." 〈〉 (accessed October 1, 2005).

Nobel Prize. "José Ramos-Horta—Curriculum Vitae." 〈〉 (accessed October 1, 2005).

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Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor

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Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor