101 Record of Conversation Between Whitlam, Surono and Her Tasning

Canberra, 4 March 1975



Portuguese Timor: Visit of President Soeharto to Australia

  1. The Prime Minister said that he could understand Indonesian anxieties about, and indeed impatience with, Portuguese Timor. Though few Australians might have visited the territory, he was sure that Portuguese Timor would exhibit a trait common to many developing countries facing decolonisation. That is, Portuguese Timor must have an elite of Portuguese and half Portuguese/Timorese bureaucrats who preferred a European lifestyle and who fancied themselves the leaders of an independent State. This had been the case in Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. But this group had been engulfed by the rapidly developing nationalist groups. The Prime Minister said that he could understand that Indonesia might be 'galled' or 'provoked' by the statements or actions of the present Timorese leaders. But might they not ultimately give way to others? The Prime Minister asked whether there were also Chinese in Portuguese Timor, connected perhaps with Macao.
  2. Mr Tasning replied that the presence of the Chinese was one reason for Indonesian fear of external, Chinese-inspired subversion.
  3. The Prime Minister said that events had moved faster than either he or President Soeharto had contemplated during their talks last year. His position remained, however, that described to the President in those talks. He still believed that the integration of Portuguese Timor into Indonesia was the most desirable outcome. But Indonesia should achieve this in a respectable manner, acceptable to public opinion in Australia: in the language of the United Nations, by means of an act of self-determination.
  4. The Prime Minister said that Australia wished to maintain good relations with Indonesia. This was as much at the military level, represented by General Surono1 himself, as at the political level. He did not wish to see anything emerge which might damage the co-operative relationship and understanding that had developed with Indonesia. The Prime Minister said that he would not go into the questions of political detainees. But developments in Portuguese Timor had the potential to disrupt those relations. The Prime Minister said that the optimum solution for the moment seemed a maintenance of the status quo, with continuing Portuguese sovereignty. The Prime Minister hoped this would eventuate but expressed some doubt that the Portuguese would in fact wish to stay on. Perhaps they would follow the example of Mozambique.
  5. The Prime Minister asked the General to consider, however, the repercussions on the relationship of Indonesian military intervention, if Indonesia ever felt provoked to such action. The Prime Minister warned that the Australian people were 'easily upset'. The recent press reports had shown that. It might therefore be impossible to avoid repercussions on the relationship. The Prime Minister pondered whether defence aid might be affected.
  6. The Prime Minister said that Indonesian military action would also be clearly embarrassing for the Government. He had spoken to the President in September last year and would hopefully be talking to the President again in April. If Indonesia took unilateral military action, popular interpretation would have it that the President had ignored his points. In short, the Australian Government would be clearly embarrassed by direct military intervention.
  7. General Surono said that he appreciated the Prime Minister's concern. But the Indonesian Government had no intention of taking action against Portuguese Timor. The Indonesian Government respected the right to self-determination of the people of Timor. Moreover, Indonesia relied heavily on the defence aid Australia provided. It would be 'folly' to prejudice this by a military adventure in Portuguese Timor. General Surono also noted that he had already publicly denied the reports of Indonesian preparations for invasion during a meeting with the press in Wellington. All that Indonesia hoped to see was 'fair play' for all groups in Portuguese Timor, including the pro-Indonesian APODETI party.

[NAA: A10463, 801/13/11/1, viii]