111 Letter from Renouf to Heads of Mission

Canberra, 14 March 1975


You will know that we have been much concerned with Portuguese Timor over the last two or three weeks. The possibility of Indonesian military action in Timor has always been with us. And indeed it is clear that as long ago as last October contingency plans for direct military intervention were being prepared or revived. But we think that, in the development of Indonesian policy towards Portuguese Timor, those within the Indonesian administration who favour a program of more or less discreet pressure and persuasion-and no doubt subversion-as distinct from direct military intervention, to achieve the objective of incorporation of the territory into Indonesia have been in the ascendancy.

At the same time voices favouring a more direct approach have never been entirely muted, and indeed we have all along been aware1 that contingency planning for possible military action, in addition to subversion, has been proceeding apace-to the extent, in fact, that we had already decided by mid-February that the arrival of our new Ambassador in Jakarta and the introductory calls he was to make should become an occasion to bring home to the Indonesians the damaging impact military intervention in Timor would have on relations between Australia and Indonesia. On 21 February the Prime Minister agreed in discussions with me that he would send a message to President Soeharto to be handed over by our new Ambassador. The Minister had mentioned our apprehensions to the visiting New Zealand Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs (Walding) on 20 February.

There are a number of theories about how the press became engaged. But the following week saw an outburst of press reporting on the Timor situation stimulated, it seems, by a feature article written by Peter Hastings in the Sydney Morning Herald. Hastings referred inter alia to Indonesian amphibious exercises then about to take place; he inferred that the military now had the upper hand in Indonesian policy making, and that armed intervention in Portuguese Timor was just around the comer.

There followed the urgency debate in the House of Representatives on 25 February, which in tum generated political pressures on us to seek clarification of their intentions from the Indonesians. In the event, the Indonesians made emphatic denials, private as well as public, of any intention to intervene in Portuguese Timor and these were received with relief. Our latest advice is from Dick Woolcott following his presentation of credentials on 8 March. President Soeharto gave a categoric assurance that Indonesia had 'no intention' of attempting to 'integrate Portuguese Timor by military force' and asked that this advice be passed on to the Prime Minister.

While there thus seems little likelihood of early military action, we do not rule it out once and for all. Indeed, intelligence reports have continued to focus on the question of possible timing of Indonesian military action-and it is evident that an Indonesian subversive effort in Portuguese Timor is already under way.

Meanwhile, we have had some more encouraging news from Lisbon. Dr Santos, the Portuguese Minister for Interterritorial Co-ordination, has outlined to Frank Cooper new proposals which he has received from the FRETILIN-UDT coalition and which envisage a protracted transitional period before independence in Portuguese Timor, with steps to be taken meanwhile to bring about a rational ordering of relations with Indonesia. Earlier reports suggested that UDT-FRETILIN were pressing for immediate independence, and for this independence to be on the basis of a simple transfer of power that by-passed an act of self-determination. Hints of such a Mozambique-type solution have also been evident in some Portuguese attitudes. And all this has fuelled Indonesia's suspicions and added to our own anxiety about possible Indonesian intervention.

Dr Santos' new information, since confirmed by our Counsellor in Jakarta, who has just returned from a visit to Dili, is thus encouraging. There are still indications that UDT-FRETILIN will be seeking immediate endorsement of the ultimate objective of independence thereby ruling out other options. But we have some hopes that the Portuguese will insist that all choices be left open, including that of integration with Indonesia.

In any event, the new UDT-FRETILIN proposals would seem to remove the immediate urgency from the situation and we believe that they offer some hope for achieving a political outcome in Portuguese Timor which could meet both the political aspirations of the Timorese and the legitimate security interests of Indonesia.

On the other hand, recent developments in Portugal indicating a further increase in the strength of the Left there will worry the Indonesians. These developments also raise questions about the extent to which future governments in Lisbon would be prepared to follow a program of gradual constitutional development in Portuguese Timor like that favoured by Dr Santos.

I mentioned earlier political pressure generated by the press speculation about an imminent Indonesian invasion of Portuguese Timor. It was partly because of this (and partly, too, because we felt that the sooner action was taken the better) that it was decided that Dick Woolcott should proceed to Jakarta a few days earlier than initially planned. He arrived there on Monday, 3 March, carrying with him a letter from the Prime Minister. The letter has now been handed over in Jakarta and, as mentioned, drew the encouraging response from President Soeharto to which I have already referred.

I hope that the foregoing helps to bring you up to date with developments relating to Portuguese Timor. I should say that we have had severely to limit the distribution of cables on this subject (as well as the treatment of it in the PIR). These restrictions were the result of the concern expressed by the Prime Minister over the leaks to the press in Canberra late last month. In particular, I think he was irritated by the report in the Australian of 25 February foreshadowing his message to President Soeharto. We had hoped to keep the fact of this message secret, and indeed even now we have confirmed its existence only to the United States and New Zealand.

Before concluding this letter I should like to register the Department's own interest in receiving from ASEAN posts an assessment of the likely reaction of ASEAN governments to Indonesian military action against Timor. We have been inclined to feel, if a little cynically, that the reaction would probably be very muted, and indeed understanding of Indonesia's action, a possible exception being the reaction in Singapore. The Department of Defence, on the other hand-and commentators like Peter Hastings-argue that regional countries would in fact be sorely disturbed by Indonesian intervention in Timor, that such action would revive fears of Indonesia's expansionism, and that, indeed, it would constitute a serious disruption to regional stability, undermining the sense of trust and the regional equilibrium which have obtained over the last five or six years. As I say, we feel this to be an exaggerated assessment. But we should be grateful to have the views of the ASEAN posts themselves. We should also be glad to have anything you might glean about how the ASEAN countries regard our recent reactions to the problem of Portuguese Timor, that is, the press interest here and the Parliamentary debate. Do they think the reactions were justified? Or do they think that these reactions show that we are not attuned to thinking among ASEAN countries?

I am sending copies of this letter to our Heads of Mission in all ASEAN countries. I am also attaching a note prepared for the Minister's visit to Kuala Lumpur this week which covers the main policy questions raised by the Timor issues.

[NAA: Al838, 3038/7/1, i]