When Ngo Pin returned to Cambodia in 1976 with then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk, he was forced by the Khmer Rouge to work as a translator, receiving delegates from movements that were friendly to Democratic Kampuchea—movements like the Revolutionary Army of East Timor.
During those days, like the one when the East Timorese pro-independence rebels pulled up to what is now the Council of Ministers building, Ngo Pin was told to greet delegations with the fervor of a revolutionary.
“We believed we had just won a victory from US aggression. [The East Timorese] came here to learn how to fight that foreign aggression. They wanted to learn how to fight,” he said Wednesday.
While historians point out the 1976 delegation eventually had little impact on the current East Timorese pro-independence movement, Ngo Pin said he could not dismiss the irony of how the perpetrators of genocide could educate those who eventually would become its victims.
“Although I believe in both groups’ goals to get away from outside occupation, now look how different the two are,”
According to a letter uncovered earlier this year at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, the East Timorese group was led by former rebel Rogerio Lobato, who lost family members when the Indonesian army invaded East Timor in 1975 and eventually helped lead the resistance.
In one photograph of the visit, Ngo Pin, now a member of Funcinpec who serves as Secretary of State for the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology, is pictured talking to the East Timorese delegation.
In another, former deputy prime minister of foreign affairs for Democratic Kampuchea Ieng Sary greets the delegation’s white Mercedes with a warm smile.
Ngo Pin said the group stayed for several days and learned guerrilla theories from Democratic Kampuchea’s leaders—who also were key cadre in the Khmer Rouge.
In the letter from Rogerio Lobato to Ieng Sary, the group also sought to visit China, where historians have noted they likely traveled to raise funds for the resistance.
Rogerio Lobato headed the rebel Fretelin (Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor) party and was sent abroad with Jose Ramos-Horta—a storied East Timor resistance leader who eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize—to garner support for the group’s efforts.
“Although he and Jose Ramos-Horta were sent abroad at the same time,” wrote historian Stephen Heder in a recent e-mail, “from early on there were signs of tension between the two men…with Rogerio [Lobato] originally being identified with a more radical wing.”
Rogerio Lobato eventually ended up in Mozambique, where he was convicted of diamond smuggling. He was released some years ago and “has long since ceased to have any influence among East Timorese political activists,” Heder wrote.
Indonesian Ambassador to Cambodia Hamid Alhadad said Wednesday he had not heard of the 1976 trip, but he added he was not surprised.
“They were a leftist movement who wanted to meet with their kind,” he said.
But one Western embassy staff member argued that this characterization overstates the movement’s leanings, instead calling them “nationalists and social democrats…with a small number of students and intellectuals with Marxist leanings.”
The current independence movement in East Timor, led by recently freed independence leader Xanana Gusmao, has since rejected the Fretelin moniker.