140 Cablegram to Jakarta, Lisbon and New York

Canberra, 6 June 1975


Committee of Twenty-Four: Portuguese Timor

The draft decision by the Committee of Twenty-Four on 'Territories under Portuguese Administration' for adoption in Lisbon just circulated by Chairman Salim contains the following surprise paragraph No 6.

Ref O.UN31031

Please discuss this matter with the Indonesians and ascertain whether they intend to try to have the phrases 'soon' and 'and independence' deleted from the proposed text of paragraph 6 of Salim's draft. We prefer that Indonesia take the front-running on this matter but would be prepared to support them in private discussions with the Committee chairman.

For Lisbon

  1. It would seem to us that the draft proposed by Salim would prejudge the outcome of the Macao talks. This point might be made by the Ambassador when he calls on Alves (LB006). We would hope that the Portuguese might seek to persuade Salim to delete the offending phrases.

For New York

  1. You should support any approach by the Indonesians to Salim to have the word 'soon' deleted from the proposed draft paragraph 6, as well as the words 'and independence'. You might explain to Salim that Australia has consistently supported the need for a 'measured and deliberate' approach to decolonisation in Portuguese Timor. This is an approach which has been accepted by all the pa[rties] involved Portugal and Indonesia as well as the Timorese political parties.
  2. In supporting a measured approach, we have been very much alive to the fact that the inhabitants of Portuguese Timor displayed virtually no political interests before the April 1974 coup in Portugal. By contrast, the Portuguese colonies in Africa for many years were marked by the existence of politically mature independence movements with long-standing international connexions. (The Government has of course supported the aims of these movements.) The absence of comparable developments in Portuguese Timor suggests a lack of political awareness in the territory and it is for this reason that we believe the Portuguese Government should not be invited to rush the process of decolonisation. Deliberate progress will more effectively prepare all the people of the territory to choose their own future, in full awareness of all alternatives open to them.
  3. We would hesitate to accept at face value the claims of the political personalities who have emerged in the first year of political activity in Timor. They have sprung from what appears to have been a political vacuum under the Portuguese. Most appear to represent a small elite class-the educated, the government officials and various other westernised elements. It may be that this group will be able to win the allegiance of the people of the territory, but their claims are as yet untested. There may well be, below the surface, thoroughly indigenous political forces which would carry the inhabitants of Portuguese Timor in directions different from those on which their present leaders are set. It is relevant that only a few months ago most of the Timorese were said to be against independence, favouring instead a long-term association with Portugal. It is also relevant that the UDT-FRETILIN coalition was short­—lived. UDT has broken away from FRETILIN. The present situation on the ground is now highly confused.
  4. As for the option of integration with Indonesia, it is worth noting that the division of the island of Timor is no more than an accident of Western colonial history. The border was drawn by the Dutch and the Portuguese, powers which were totally alien to the region. Four hundred years of Portuguese domination may have distorted the picture which the people of Portuguese Timor have of themselves, and perhaps obscured for them their ethnic kinship with the people of Indonesia. Time will be required for them to sort themselves out.
  5. The experience of decolonisation in many countries has shown that the westernised educated elites do not always best reflect the true interests of their peoples. In most cases they have been supplanted sooner or later by more representative leaders. We are therefore concerned that, at this early stage of political evolution in Portuguese Timor, we do nothing to close off any option for the people of the territory. On the other hand the Australian Government has always supported the right of the Timorese to decide their own future. If the people of Portuguese Timor, after careful consideration, were to choose independence, then we should welcome and support that choice.
  6. All of the foregoing could be drawn on in any discussions with Salim.
  7. As regards your paragraph 4, we would assume that the Chinese would be hostile to any reference to Macao. We should not wish to encourage the Indonesians to proceed with this course, but recognise that Sani might wish to use the Macao analogy in his discussions with Salim to persuade the latter to accommodate the Indonesians over Timor.

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