A member of the East Timorese delegation visiting Democratic Kampuchea in 1977 is hugged by a member of the Cambodian Foreign Ministry, watched by Ngo Pin, second from right, now Secretary of State for the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology.
WHEN Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downing last week compared East Timor's
deserted capital Dili with Phnom Penh in 1975 he almost certainly had no idea of
the irony of his comments.
Because in 1977 the Khmer Rouge spent a year training East Timor pro-independence
rebels in the arts of revolution - but now their sometime students have fallen prey
to the KR's own tactics of city clearing, terror and genocide.
The connection between the groups came to light in recent months when the Documentation
Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) uncovered evidence of secret visits by an East Timorese
delegation in 1977.
The visit was ostensibly to garner support for the still-born socialist republic,
but also to arrange revolutionary training courses for East Timorese diplomats and
A letter from then military commander Rogério Lobato to then Deputy Prime
Minister Ieng Sary was uncovered by DC-Cam Director Youk Chang and indicates that
the delegation had been in Phnom Penh for about a year from 1976.
"The one year period of visit and stay of the three of us in the Democratic
Kampuchea, together with the precious knowledge we have gained, renders great significance
for the revolutionary resistance in East Timor," says the letter, which is dated
December 21, 1977, before going on to inform Sary that the delegation would be cutting
short its visit due to pressing engagements elsewhere (including "at least six
months, secretly, in [North] Korea").
At the time of the visit, Lobato had been dispatched as an overseas ambassador for
the newly declared Democratic Republic of East Timor (DRET), in an effort to get
official support from other countries. During the years 1975-79 (co-incidentally
the same time span as Democratic Kampuchea) East Timor was undergoing one of the
most hellish periods of its turbulent history, with the invasion by Indonesia in
1975 leading to civil war until 1979. (Later, Lobato became discredited when he was
caught diamond smuggling in Mozambique, and now has no relevance to the struggle
in East Timor.)
That East Timorese should have made their way to Cambodia at this time is not so
surprising, according to Peter Carey, a British academic at Oxford University who
specializes in East Timor and also has an interest in Cambodia.
"Obviously, when the Democratic Republic of East Timor (DRET) was declared,
it was conceived as a radical socialist republic and looked to 'brotherly' support
from other socialist states", he said by email. "Democratic Kampuchea was
one of the handful of countries which, I believe, recognized the DRET - though perhaps
not formally - the only four to accord de jure recognition were Mozambique, Angola,
Guinea-Bissau and Cap Verde, all ex-Portuguese colonies in Africa."
According to Ngo Pin, who was then a translator at the Foreign Ministry and is now
Secretary of State for the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology, the delegation,
which he says comprised five members, stayed only for a week in Phnom Penh (something
seemingly contradicted by the letter), but the visit paved the way for a series of
revolutionary training courses for the East Timorese, organized by Ieng Sary.
"The courses were to teach the East Timor students the art of revolution,"
he said. "The courses lasted for a long time - years - but were conducted in
secret. The cadre were taught how to fight with guerrilla tactics. They were taken
to see the B52 bomb craters made by the Americans, and were told what Cambodia had
gone through to get to that stage."
According to Pin, the East Timorese were not the only ones brushing up their guerrilla
tactics at the hands of the KR leaders.
"We had delegations from the Philippines and Peru as well," he said. "The
courses were taught across Cambodia."
These visits came at a time when Cambodia was closed off to most of the world, except
for a weekly flight to Beijing. According to Pin, secrecy was certainly the key element
of the delegation's trip. He recalled how he himself was not allowed to move around
freely, but was kept in the compound at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and how
"sometimes I only got half an hour's warning before I had to go and translate
for the delegation".
He said the East Timorese mostly stayed in Phnom Penh, but were taken around the
provinces to see the revolution at work. In fact, one of the photographs uncovered
by DC-Cam shows the delegation standing outside a collective warehouse somewhere
in the suburbs. The trips were tightly regulated - but perhaps not quite tightly
enough, as Timorese and Cambodian experts say that there may have been a more sinister
and significant reason for the eventual rapid end the visit.
"It would be understandable that given the DRET's radical leanings and need
for support from 'brotherly socialist' regimes that the East Timorese leaders in
exile would have looked to Cambodia for help in training and diplomatic assistance,"
said Carey, "but the realities of the ground in KR-ruled Cambodia were just
too awful for the young East Timorese cadres sent there to stomach, and so the training
(such as it was) was curtailed and terminated in 1977."
Carey, who spoke to East Timorese activist and Nobel Prize-winner José Ramos
Horta in 1988 about the delegation's visit to Cambodia, recalls that Ramos Horta
was less than complimentary about Democratic Kampuchea's home-grown revolution.
"I asked him what he thought [of Ieng Sary]. He pulled a long face, and gave
a hollow laugh, saying that he was a pretty sinister individual, who had offered
to help the East Timorese [Fretelin] aspiring diplomats and cadres, some of whom
had been dispatched to Cambodia for training, but who had had to be withdrawn because
they were so disturbed at what was going on in the country and what they witnessed
with their own eyes."
The East Timorese delegation drives away from the Council of Ministers in Phnom Penh, farewelled by Democratic Kampuchea Deputy Prime Minister Ieng Sary (in the background, near the car).
Pin said he was not sure whether the delegation had been upset by what they saw.
"I did not get that impression," he said.
But surely they must have been somewhat disturbed that there was not a single soul
living in Phnom Penh?
"Well, I'm sure it must have struck them as a bit unusual," he said, "but
I don't remember them seeming disturbed."
While it is tempting to jump to conclusions about the effect of the KR training that
the delegation received, given the situation in East Timor today, experts say there
is no connection between the two regimes, and no evidence that the KR influenced
the East Timor movement to any degree. Yet it is still sadly ironic that a movement
dedicated to upholding the freedoms of a small group of oppressed people should have
come to seek edification from a group who were conducting systematic slaughter in
their own country.
Youk Chang said he was amazed at how far the KR managed to influence people at the
time. "That was their skill," he said. "They managed to hide their
brutality so well, and get support from other regimes."
"It confirms that a lot of people were fooled by their regime. That delegation
was being met by devils in angels' costumes."