Why East Timor would not be free without Mozambique

Mozambique incubated the nascent Timorese independence movement when all the odds were stacked against them.

Just the Basics

  • Shortly after declaring independence from Portugal, East Timor was promptly invaded by Indonesia, nearly killing Timorese independence before it began

  • Timorese nationalist leaders found sanctuary in newly independent Mozambique, a Portuguese sister colony with a long history of ties with East Timor

  • From its flag to political outlook, Mozambique profoundly impacted Timorese nationalism

Mozambique, 1976: A group of freedom fighters sit around a low table in an obscure building in the country’s capital Maputo, planning their next move. Despite celebrating Mozambique’s independence less than a year before, the resistance fighters continue to discuss strategies for liberating their home country from foreign occupation. Whereas Portuguese forces had long since left Mozambique, these rebels are concerned with another foreign occupation almost 10,000 kilometres away in East Timor, a small Southeast Asian island bordering Australian waters. Mozambique served as a key refuge for the Timorese independence movement during both its struggle against Portuguese colonial rule, and the decades-long fight against Indonesian occupation.

Separated by the expanse of the Indian Ocean, East Timor and Mozambique nevertheless share an intimate history, one which saw the African nation act as incubator for the nascent Timorese independence movement: without Mozambique, Timorese independence may well never have occurred. The story of Asia’s newest nation - East Timor only gained independence in 2002 - cannot be told without recounting the legacy of Mozambique’s vital influence.

Sentenced to exile: Mozambique and East Timor’s shared colonial past

Both East Timor and Mozambique were Portuguese colonies, with the former falling under Lisbon’s sway for over 500 years. Long a neglected backwater trading post, East Timor received little investment and attention from Portugal which was preoccupied with its chief colony of Brazil, and following the latter’s independence in 1822, with its African possessions. East Timor’s isolation can be seen in the fact that - despite bookending opposite ends of the Indian Ocean - the closest Portuguese possession to the tiny island was in fact Mozambique. As such, it was from Mozambique that Portugal drew resources for its operations in East Timor.


Portuguese map of East Timor from 1731 | WIKIMEDIA COMMONS


Take Portugal’s response to the 1911-1912 rebellion launched by Donn Roaventura, the king leader of Manufahi who had united almost all Timorese kings against the Portuguese. Portugal sent troops from Mozambique to quell the uprising and some of the rebel leaders were later exiled to Africa, not the first time that Portugal had done this; for instance, after falling from the metropole’s good graces, East Timor’s governor was banished Mozambique in 1779. Similarly, in 1959 Portugal sent troops from Mozambique to quash the rebellion in the Southeastern region of Viqueque. Beyond the logistical considerations, sending troops from Mozambique was an important part of Portuguese efforts to sow animosity among colonized peoples by instigating conflict between them.

Exiling Timorese troublemakers to Mozambique has a long history, and would play a key role in the coming independence movement. One of the most important figures in recent Timorese history is Jose Ramos-Horta; a founding members of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin); foreign minister in exile and Fretilin’s permanent representative to UN; winner of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize; and President of East Timor from 2008 to 2012.

Portuguese troops in East Timor, November 24, 1968 |  WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Portuguese troops in East Timor, November 24, 1968 | WIKIMEDIA COMMONS


Long outspoken, Horta came to the attention of colonial authorities after reading Eduardo Mondlane’s (the founding president of the Mozambican Liberation Front, or FRELIMO) Struggle for Mozambique and engaging American tourists in the capital Dili in discussions on anti-colonialism. At one point Horta remarked that if Portugal would not develop East Timor, the United States should take it. For these remarks and his growing political activism, the twenty-one year old Horta was exiled in 1970 to Mozambique (then Portuguese East Africa) for two years. In being sent to Mozambique, Horta was continuing a family tradition, as his father had been exiled to East Timor from Portugal by the Salazar regime.

After Portugal’s dictatorial regime was toppled in 1974, decolonization proceeded apace in both Africa and East Timor, yet forces were conspiring to abort Timorese independence before it was even born. By March 1975 Fretilin emerged as the most popular party in East Timor due to its grass-roots campaign in rural areas and support of the Timorese peasantry.


Horta (centre) at a press conference on June 8th 1976, in Amsterdam | ROB BOGAERTS - DUTCH NATIONAL ARCHIVES


Even the name adopted by Timorese nationalists for their organization owes a debt to Mozambique, as the Timorese Social Democratic Association (ASDT) later changed its name to Fretilin. This change led to criticism in Indonesia and Australia that Fretilin was Marxist, pointing to the phonetic similarity with Mozambique’s Frelimo. Furthermore, Fretilin’s flag adopted colours and symbols similar to other African revolutionary struggles rooted in socialist thought. Both Fretilin and Frelimo’s flags feature a triangle or rectangle next to three stripes, and both flags make use of the colours red, white, yellow and black. Upon independence both parties also designed their national flags based on their party flags. As a result, both national flags sport a five pointed star within a triangle, as well as the colours previously mentioned.

Timorese independence almost smothered in the cradle

Despite calling itself the only legitimate representative of the Timorese people, Fretilin initially cooperated with the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT); a more conservative party which initially favoured continued links with Portugal, before joining with Fretilin to push for independence. In April 1975, the Portuguese governor of East Timor, Mario Lemos Pires organized a committee for the decolonization of East Timor, with the various parties meeting in Macau several months later. Fretilin objected to the presence of Indonesian representatives whose participation in the conference bolstered suspicions that Portugal was going to hand East Timor over to Jakarta. In protest the senior members of Fretilin boycotted the meeting, opting instead to attend Mozambique’s independence ceremony instead.


Similarly, Mozambique became one of the first countries to recognize East Timor’s independence. Speaking on the links between Mozambique and East Timor, Horta explains that “some Portuguese press perceived the human solidarity between the [Lusophone African nations] and East Timor as an international conspiracy, as if the Mozambican leaders worried about the new version of the Tordesillas Treaty; [the 15th century treaty mediated by the Pope which divided the world between the crowns of Portugal and Spain] this time for the USSR, China and USA [to] share the world [...] Their hardly disguised racist paternalism [...] prevented them from understanding the significance of human solidarity.”

The communism adopted by Fretilin is the same kind developed in Mozambique by Peking-man Samora Machel
— Indonesian embassy report sent to Australia

Tensions continued to remain high and the alliance with the UDT lasted less than a year after they abandoned their independence goal and UDT leaders began meeting with Indonesian intelligence officers, who in turn encouraged the UDT to launch a pre-emptive coup and seize control. Unfortunately for the UDT, their August 1975 coup was defeated after the majority of the Timorese contingent of the Portuguese military sided with Fretilin. Having seen off the threat from the UDT, East Timor declared its independence in November 1975, only to face an Indonesian invasion less than a month later.


Indonesia had stoked fears about Fretilin’s leftist leanings, raising the spectre of Fretilin establishing a  “Cuba in Southeast Asia’. In a report given to Australia by the Indonesian embassy, Jakarta warned that “the communism adopted by Fretilin is the same kind developed in Mozambique by Peking-man Samora Machel.” Fearing a communist state in its backyard, Indonesia secured Australian, along with British and American support for its invasion, officially annexing East Timor as its 27th province on July 17th, 1976. Nevertheless, the Indonesian invasion was opposed by the UN Security Council; Jakarta’s rule over the region was not acknowledged and the UN recognized Fretilin as a government-in-exile.

Fretilin’s flight to Mozambique

Following the Indonesian invasion, the Fretilin exiles found sanctuary in Mozambique, with the African country providing the delegation with accommodation and recognizing them as the official representatives of East Timor; a status that also gave them extraterritoriality within Fretilin headquarters, essentially turning the building into an embassy. Mozambique also offered scholarships to any Timorese citizen who qualified for admission, with many of East Timor’s future leaders studying in Mozambican universities.

These included Mari Alkatiri, Fretilin’s secretary-general and prime minister of East Timor from 2002 to 2006. Alkatiri studied law and economics at Eduardo Mondlane University, learning about international organizations and studying how to avoid falling into the kinds of traps that Mozambique encountered post-independence. Other prominent exiles included Francisco Gutteres (who as of writing is the current President of East Timor) and Ana Pessoa Pinto, future prosecutor general and minister for state and internal administration. During her time in Mozambique she joined Noemra Francisco (Supreme Court of Mozambique) in establishing the Women and Law in Southern Africa research project, as well as marrying Horta: their son Loro was born in exile in Mozambique.


Prime Minister Mari Bin Amude Alkatiri speaking at the IMF plenary in 2002 | IMF


Along with this marriage and son, Horta also owes his life to Mozambique, as officials from the African nation saved him from execution during an internal purge in 1980. Following the Indonesian invasion, elements of Fretilin became increasingly radicalized, emphasizing a fundamentalist interpretation of Marxist-Leninism, and by mid-1977 calls for a people’s revolution along the lines of Mao began. Ironically, the accusations of communist fundamentalism and Maoist leanings used by Indonesian to justify its invasion materialized as a result of said invasion. Faced with internal purges, re-education programs and revolutionary justice à la the Red Guard, the late 1970s were a dangerous time to be a member of Fretilin.

In 1978, a ‘plot’ was uncovered after interior minister Alarico Fernandes was denounced as a traitor for defecting to the Indonesians (others maintain that he was merely captured and forced to cooperate). Whatever the truth, when Horta returned to Mozambique in 1980 he was arrested as Fernandes’ accomplice by Rogerio Lobato (who had received training from Cambodia’s infamous Khmer Rouge) and sentenced to death. Shortly before his execution, officials from Frelimo came to the de facto Fretilin embassy in Maputo where they confronted the Timorese. “What you do is your decision. You are sovereign here in this building,” explained the Frelimo agents. “But if you execute Horta we will expel you, and no one else in the world will take you in or heed anything you say. He is the only international credibility you possess.”

Thanks to this intervention Horta was released soon thereafter and sent back to Washington, where he had been working as a press attaché at the Mozambican embassy. It was in this role that Horta helped establish the first Mozambican lobby in the American capital, as well as organize visits for high-ranking Mozambican officials.

How a dance sums up Mozambique’s influence on Timorese nationalism

Alongside his activities in Washington, Mozambique and at the UN, Horta was one of the leaders of an international network of Timorese diaspora communities - notably in Australia - which worked to raise awareness about East Timor’s plight. To this end, diaspora communities hosted cultural events and other fundraising activities as part of a public relations campaign to garner international support for Timorese independence.

One of the staples of these cultural performances was - and still is - the Rice Dance, performed by dancers in traditional costumes and accompanied by traditional drums. Portrayed as a Timorese tradition with a long pedigree, the dance was actually written by a Timorese exile (or Timorese soldier in the Portuguese military) in Mozambique in 1970. A romantic portrayal of the Timorese peasantry, the dance reflects the nascent leftist politics of pre-independence East Timor as well as the influence of its “colonial sister”, Mozambique.


Timorese dancer in traditional garb - October 13th, 2008 | GRAHAM CRUMB - FLICKR


Writing in Exile and Return Among the East Timorese, author Amanda Wise touches on the Rice Dance’s surprising pedigree and ties to Mozambique.

“So here is a dance, ostensibly traditional and valorizing the pure and good ‘East Timorese peasant culture’. It was written in exile under the influence of the Mozambique colonial struggle and performed through the years in East Timor as a [means of] resistance to Portuguese, and then to Indonesian, occupation. Finally it was exported to Australia and performed frequently as a key display of the traditional East Timorese culture for which, among other things, the community was fighting for.”

This decades long fight eventually came an end in 1999 after the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia, when the United Nations established a transitional government to administer the territory until its official independence in 2002.

East Timor’s post-independence debt of gratitude to Mozambique

Just because East Timor had finally achieved independence this did not mean that its ties to Mozambique fell to the wayside, as relations between the two countries remain close. Just two years after independence, Mozambique became the first African country to host a Timorese embassy; a fitting development that nicely mirrors the creation of Fretilin’s ad-hoc embassy in Maputo all those years ago. Timorese citizens also enjoy visa-upon-arrival privileges when travelling to Mozambique. Speaking at the opening of the embassy, Horta (still foreign minister) stated that “we will continue needing your support to consolidate peace, human empowerment and development.”

More recently, East Timor honoured Mozambique’s first president - Samora Machel - post-humously awarding him the Great Necklace of the Order of East Timor in May 2016. During the ceremony, Timorese president Taur Matan Rauk eulogized Machel, stating that he was a “true brother of the Timorese people [...who] was touched by the cause of the Timorese people and decisively expressed Mozambique’s support for their struggle. For Samora, the independence of Mozambique would not be complete without East Timor becoming an independent country.”


1st president of Mozambique, Samora Machel | WIKIMEDIA COMMONS


Xanana Gusmao (Prime Minister 2007-2015 and President 2002-2007) a former guerilla leader who spent 17 years fighting Indonesia in East Timor has also looked to Mozambique’s example regarding post-conflict reconciliation. “Now Mozambique enjoys peace and people tend their fields without worrying about attacks, explains Gusmao - “peace is their reward.” Gusmao has likened East Timor’s situation to Mozambique’s, as both nations have waived claims to reparations from their former enemies, opting instead for “truth in return for amnesty.” The decision to not go after Indonesia is a noble one, especially since many of East Timor’s leaders personally suffered at the hands of Indonesia’s security forces: four of Horta’s siblings were killed during the occupation.

This forgiving attitude was again on display during the 2006 crisis, when discontent over favouritism in the military led to protests, eventually resulting in a partial coup and necessitating foreign intervention. Critics of Prime Minister Mari Alkatari accused him of pursuing Mozambique-style Marxism, using Alkatari’s time in Mozambique to paint him as a kind of unreconstructed Marxist rather than the economic nationalist that he is: Alkatari eventually resigned just a day before Mozambique’s independence day. This refrain about nefarious connections to Mozambique has been used (first by Portugal and Indonesia, and later domestic actors) as a long-running tactic to discredit Timorese politicians.


Jose Ramos-Horta poses with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama pose for a photo during a reception at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Sept. 23 2009 | LAWRENCE JACKSON


Moreover, during the 2006 crisis, Alkatari’s increasingly authoritarian policies drew the ire of the Catholic Church after he abolished mandatory religious studies in Timorese schools. In response, Father Domingo Soars, spokesperson for the diocese of Dili characterized Alkatari and his government as “[...] ultra-left with strong communist tendencies [...] These people who had defected to Mozambique, where dictatorial governments continue [to be] dominant.”

In the aftermath of the crisis, Rogerio Lobato; who had resigned in protest from Alkatari’s government, was charged with five counts of arming civilians after the nation’s police force disintegrated during the coup attempt. In 2007, Lobato was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison, yet in 2008 the newly elected President Horta reduced Lobato’s sentence by half; a merciful act considering Lobtato had tried to execute Horta all those years ago in Mozambique.

The Bottom Line

East Timor’s birth as a new nation was almost a stillborn one, as the tiny island found itself free of the Portuguese yoke in 1975, only to quickly fall under the control of another foreign power - Indonesia. Fortunately for Fretilin and the cause of Timorese independence, the island’s long standing connections with fellow colony Mozambique ended up being a vital lifeline. Having itself only declared independence a few months prior to East Timor, Mozambique became a hub for Fretilin as it continued its fight against the Indonesian occupation.

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In supporting Fretilin, Mozambique not only saved the Timorese independence movement, but (literally, in Horta’s case) saved many of East Timor’s future leaders, providing them with protection, education and a base of operations. Fretilin’s connections to Mozambique are evident in the similarity of its flag and name with that of Mozambique’s Frelimo, and the Mozambican influence has leaked into Timorese culture, blending elements of both.

When East Timor finally achieved independence in 2002, East Timor did not forget its African friend, opening its first African embassy in Mozambique as well as honouring Mozambican revolutionary leaders. While Mozambique’s aid was a boon for East Timor’s leaders, these links have also been repeatedly used by domestic and foreign critics to delegitimize individuals such as Horta and Alkatari. Nevertheless, the Timorese and Mozambican peoples continue to benefit from a close bond, and East Timor continues to reap the benefit of that friendship; namely, peace.

Jeremy Luedi is the editor of True North Far East. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, Courrier International, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, and FACTA Magazine. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, Radio Free Europe and the Washington Times, among others.