The Indonesian Invasion 1975

Invasion – 7 December 1975

The establishment of the Democratic Republic of Indonesia in 1948 had drawn together peoples from a range of neighbouring cultures who had experienced Dutch colonisation. The eastern half of the island of Timor, however, had been colonised by the Portuguese thus preventing complete Indonesian control of the archipelago. In 1974 the Armed Forces Movement in Portugal overthrew the Salazar-Caetano regime, and Portugal began the process of decolonisation of its overseas possessions – including the under-developed East Timor which it had administered for nearly five hundred years.

Timorese political parties

A number of political parties emerged in East Timor. The UDT proposed that Portugal remain in control during preparation for independence, while FRETILIN advocated immediate independence as a republic.[1]  In the face of the threat of the growth of communism in South-East Asia, accusations were directed at the unfolding political consciousness in Timor, particularly against FRETILIN, although actual communist influence in Portuguese Timor was negligible.[2]

In fact FRETILIN’s main thrust was towards nationalism, including its swift introduction of literacy programmes and other social benefits.[3] However, unfavourable judgements concerning the ability of the Timorese to govern themselves were voiced by both Indonesia and Australia.[4]  The Australian government vacillated between upholding Timorese political rights and siding with Indonesia. Significantly, Australian authorities expressed the view that it would be easier to negotiate the resources of the Timor Sea with Indonesia, rather than with Portugal or an independent East Timor.[5] Australian prime minister Whitlam signaled to Indonesia that the integration of East Timor into Indonesia was inevitable.

Declaration of an independent Portuguese Timor

Covert Indonesian operations destabilised East Timor as Indonesia prepared to annex the territory by force.[6] The two main Timorese political parties united in a pro-independence coalition early in 1975; however, the alliance was fragile as internal differences as to how independence was to be achieved were not resolved. The union proved susceptible to Indonesian subversion based on accusations of FRETILIN’s supposed communist leanings.[7] The parties split and a two-week war (August-September 1975) resulted in the deaths of at least 1,500 people. The victorious FRETILIN party declared East Timor an independent republic on 28 November 1975.

United States president Gerald Ford and secretary of state Henry Kissinger were in Jakarta for meetings with President Suharto on December 6, 1975 and discussed the invasion of Portuguese Timor which began on the following day. Successive Australian governments supported the invasion in following years as they worked to strengthen Australia’s relationship with Indonesia, and with Asia generally. Australia supported Indonesia at diplomatic levels, and through the provision of arms and training to the military. Despite years of repeated calls by the UN for the withdrawal of Indonesian troops, the record shows that Australia repeatedly voted against such withdrawal. [8]

The Balibó Five

Some Australian residents were also victims of the invasion. On 16 October 1975 five Australian-based journalists in the East Timorese border town of Balibó were killed by Indonesian troops to prevent them from reporting on Indonesian military operations preparing for the invasion.[9] Two of the journalists were Australian citizens, Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart, while the other three were Australian residents, Gary Cunningham from New Zealand, and Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie from Britain. All were working for Australian media companies.

Another Australian journalist reporting on the situation, Roger East, was murdered on the wharf  in the capital Dili on the day after the invasion, December 8, 1975. Despite the deaths receiving wide coverage in Australia, denial and inaction characterised the official response to the killings during the Indonesian occupation. Numerous inquiries over the subsequent thirty years proved inconclusive.[10] Then in 2007 a NSW Coroner’s Inquiry found that the five in Balibó were murdered by the Indonesian military.[11] The Australian Federal Police was given the task of pursuing those named as responsible, but have since determined that there is not enough evidence to take the matter any further.[12] Subsequent Australian governments have neglected to find out the truth of the matter or to make any formal protests to Indonesia. Consequently, dissatisfaction and suspicion remain.

Indonesian covert operations before invasion

In the 1970s the Indonesian government furthered the cause of its desired integration of Portuguese Timor through a two-edged programme of political and military intrigue. This strategy progressively embroiled Australia. The duplicity of the Indonesian leaders was formidable. While calling publicly for Portugal to restore order in East Timor they were privately pressuring Lisbon to accept their intervention, all the while quietly encouraging the disorder, infiltrating the territory, and undermining Portuguese attempts at negotiation.[13]

When it was apparent in early 1975 that Timorese resistance was strong, plans for a military solution were set in train. The resulting campaign named Operasi Komodo included covert military preparations, complete with a rehearsal for an invasion on the beaches of Sumatra in February, and the spreading of disinformation, particularly through Indonesian and foreign media.[14] An associated intelligence campaign, Operasi Flamboyan, was devised and directed within the Department of Defense and Security from October to December 1975.[15] The Indonesian government lied about the presence of its troops on the border, claiming that any military in that area were Timorese fighting other Timorese. In truth, Indonesian troops were assembling in preparation for an invasion.[16] This Indonesian duplicity was echoed by Australia.

Australian compliance

An impossible Australian position regarding Portuguese Timor was formulated by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam when he lay stress on a preference for the territory’s integration into Indonesia, with ‘obeisance’ to self-determination.[17] Whitlam’s approach prevailed so comprehensively that the Timor policy was not discussed formally, even in the Labor Cabinet.[18]

The extent of Australian involvement in the preparations for the invasion is clear in the record of two meetings between Prime Minister Whitlam and President Suharto in Indonesia, the first of which occurred on 6 September 1974.[19] The second took place in Australia on April 4, 1975.[20]

During these meetings Suharto emphasised his concern for Indonesian and regional security and claimed that Indonesia, having ‘no territorial ambitions’, would not seek to colonise others, and ‘would never contemplate’ such a thing as an invasion.[21] Whitlam believed that Portuguese Timor should become part of Indonesia, while stating the view, as did President Suharto, that the incorporation should happen in accordance with the properly expressed wishes of the Timorese people.[22] Both leaders expressed support for the principles of decolonisation. At the same time, both knew of the covert methods already underway to ensure that the actual Indonesian aspiration of annexation was realized. Duplicity reigned supreme.

Playing a double game

To maintain support for Indonesia, the Australian position was composed of two irreconcilable elements: that the Timorese people should be allowed to determine their future but that they should choose integration.[23] This contradictory reasoning is clear:

While we support the principle of self-determination and while we certainly could not condone the use of force, the prime minister still does not want to encourage the emergence of an independent East Timor and he believes that continuing public emphasis on self-determination, at this stage, is likely to strengthen pressures for independence.[24]

Even though meeting both requirements was impossible, neither Whitlam nor Suharto raised the problem of which objective would prevail in the likely event that the two opposite aims could not be reconciled, although both leaders voiced distrust of a process of self-determination.[25]

Australian dependence on Indonesia

The Australian weakness in the face of Indonesian determination to get its own way presented the huge dilemma of dealing with the means which Indonesia was prepared to use to gain its desired outcome. Australian officials juggled an official policy of supporting self-determination while hoping for Timor’s integration with Indonesia. This stance resulted in a position that when Indonesia invaded, Australia would condemn the force used, but accept the outcome. Such fence-sitting indicates that Australian preferred acquiescence to Indonesia rather than its own independence.

One of the most infamous statements associated with Australia’s dilemmas regarding East Timor was written by Ambassador Woolcott. He pronounced the inevitability of a takeover by Indonesia:

Basically, this situation is Portugal’s—not Indonesia’s—fault. Given this Hobson’s choice, I believe Australia’s interests are better served by association with Indonesia than by independence. I know that what I am writing is pragmatic rather than principled; but that is what national interest and foreign policy is all about, as even those countries with established ideological bases for their foreign policies have acknowledged. Let us not play the role of the naïve conscience of Asia, seeking to preserve our virtues by placing the fig leaf of self-determination—when we know it is unlikely to happen anyway—over the geopolitical realities of the situation. Inevitably Timor will be part of Indonesia.[26]

Australia was embroiled in the plans to take East Timor by force. Australians at the embassy in Jakarta were being informed that covert operations were underway to manipulate Timorese opinion. The ambassador to Indonesia wrote regarding such sensitive information: ‘We are, in effect, being consulted.’[27] Australia was repeatedly told of sensitive Indonesian actions by Indonesian officials.[28] Australia was also receiving information from the United States on the situation. Intelligence reports given to President Gerald Ford each day revealed ‘that the US knew that Indonesia had been conducting a covert paramilitary campaign against East Timor for over a year before the full-scale invasion in late 1975.’[29]

United States and Australia shared knowledge

In September the United States knew that there was to be an attack on the north coast involving two battalions attacking Dili and supported later by six thousand infantry from West Timor.[30] On 14 October Indonesia planned to have units inserted into Portuguese Timor in disguise and using old Russian weapons to evade recognition as Indonesian military.[31] Advice to President Ford clearly showed the Indonesian duplicity of denying intervention and placing responsibility on Portugal and the Timorese, while at the same time increasing covert operations in Timor.[32]

Australia knew much of this information as a result of intelligence-sharing arrangements with the United States.[33] Canberra knew of the planning for the invasion, including numbers of troops, time and place of attacks, and that the Indonesians would be dressed up as Timorese.[34] Official reports stated: ‘An example of the Indonesian Government’s confidence that the Australian Government understands and is sympathetic with its objective of integration is the extent to which it keeps us informed of its secret plans’.[35]

The fourth largest army in the world at the time – the Indonesian military – invaded Portuguese East Timor on 7 December 1975, brutally ushering in an occupation which lasted for 24 years.


[1] UDT – União Democrática Timorense – Timorese Democratic Union, was formed on 11 May 1974. FRETILIN – Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente – Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, began as ASDT (Timorese Social Democratic Association) on 20 May 1974 and changed its name on 11 September 1974.

[2] James Dunn, “Communist Influence in FRETILIN prior to the 1975 invasion”, East Timor Action Network (ETAN), July 29, 1998, accessed May 10, 2020,

[3] Helen Hill, Stirrings of Nationalism in East Timor (Sydney: Contemporary Otford, 2002), 70 and 109.

[4] Dunn, East Timor, 93.

[5] Richard Walsh and George Munster, Secrets of State: A detailed assessment of the book they banned (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1982), 78-79.

[6] Dunn, East Timor, 53.

[7] Ibid., viii; 141-142.

[8] United Nations, UN General Assembly Votes on East Timor (General Assembly Resolutions 1975-1982), accessed May 10, 2020,

[9] Dorelle Pinch, Inquest into the death of Brian Raymond Peters: Coroner’s Report 2007, 129, Executive Summary, accessed May 11, 2020,

[10] Ben Saul, “Prosecuting War Crimes at Balibó Under Australian Law: The Killing of Five Journalists in East Timor by Indonesia”, in Sydney Law Review, Vol. 31, No. 1, pp. 83-120, 2009, accessed May 11, 2020.

[11] Pinch, Inquest, 18.

[12] ‘Australian Federal Police Drop Investigation into the Murders of the “Balibó Five”’,, 21 October 2014,ó-five/news-story/a9af0adb251342c3f7e93070c084985f (accessed 11 May 2020).

[13] Wendy Way, ed., “Australia and the Indonesian Incorporation of Portuguese Timor, 1974-1976,” in Documents on Australian Foreign Policy Vol. 20, (Carlton South: Melbourne University Press, 2000), accessed May 10, 2020, v.   (The documents also appear on the government website at Documents on pages 21-45 are not numbered and appear on the site below the numbered list. All documents are noted here by page number.)

[14] Ibid., 3: 175, para.114.

[15] Ibid., 3 :175, para. 116.

[16] Dunn, East Timor,196.

[17] Way, “Australia and the Indonesian Incorporation, Vol. 20”, Document 37, Woolcott to Renouf, Canberra, 24 September 1974, 111.

[18] Ibid., 13.

[19] Ibid., Documents 26 and 27, Records of Meetings between Whitlam and Suharto, 6 September 1974, Yogyakarta, (10:00 a.m.) 95-98; and Wonosobo, (8:00 p.m.) 99-100.

Ibid., Document 123, Record of Conversation between Whitlam and Suharto, 4 April, 1975, Townsville, (1:00 p.m.), 244 – 248.

[20] Ibid., Document 26, Record of Meeting between Whitlam and Suharto, Yogyakarta, 6 September 1974, 96.

[21] Ibid., 97.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., Document 127, Woolcott to Willesee, Jakarta, 17 April 1975, 253.

[24] Ibid., Document 123, Record of Conversation between Whitlam and Suharto, 2nd Discussion Townsville, 4 April 1975, 245.

[25] Ibid., Document 137, Dispatch to Willesee, Jakarta, 2 June, 1975, 268.

[26] Desmond Ball and Hamish McDonald, Death in Balibó Lies in Canberra (St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2000).

[27] Brian Toohey and Marian Wilkinson, “The Timor Papers 1987”,  in Tell Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and its Triumphs, ed. John Pilger (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), 175.

[28] Ibid., 178.

[29] Ibid., 181.

[30] Ibid., 180-181.

[31] Ibid., 175.

[32] Way, “Australia and the Indonesian Incorporation, Vol. 20”, Document 262, Cablegram to Canberra, Jakarta, 15 October 1975, 468.

[33] Ibid., Document 257, Canberra to Jakarta, Canberra, 13 October 1975, 460.

[34] Ibid., Document 262, Cablegram to Canberra, Jakarta, 15 October 1975, 468.

[35] Way, “Australia and the Indonesian Incorporation, Vol. 20”, Document 169, Woolcott

    to Canberra, 17 August 1975, 314.

Long overdue’: Ramos-Horta calls on Australia to release Balibo files
Chris Barrett – Sydney Morning Herald – January 16, 2023
East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta has called on the Australian government to finally release secret documents relating to the Indonesian invasion and occupation of the south-east-Asian nation as he led tributes to Balibo Five widow Shirley Shackleton.