170 Cablegram to Canberra

Lisbon, 18 August 1975

O.LB211 SECRET PRIORITY

Call on President

Our 10851

I was received by President Costa Gomes at 3.15 this afternoon. The interview lasted for 45 minutes.

Timor

  1. I said that I wished to convey to the President the Australian Government's latest thinking on Timor. We were concerned by recent developments which posed a threat to the Portuguese Government's declared policy of a measured and deliberate approach to decolonisation-a policy which had the full support of the Australian Government. Accordingly, we had also supported the time table agreed on in Macao.
  2. I went on to express the hope that the Portuguese Government would not be deterred by threats or pressure from any faction or group in Timor and would take early steps to reassert its authority in the territory. I appreciated that any final decisions must presumably await the return to Lisbon of Major Soares, but suggested that a public statement to the effect that the Portuguese Government had no intention of abandoning its responsibilities in Timor, or of being stampeded into granting premature independence to any group, would do much to reassure all parties interested in an orderly and deliberate progress towards self-determination in Timor. I was sure that such a statement would be publicly welcomed in Canberra and, I believed, equally in Jakarta.
  3. The President said that they had always accepted that any solution for Timor would only be viable if it had the support of the Australian and Indonesian Governments. In their decolonisation policy the Portuguese Government had no wish to create new problems for the countries of the region. He agreed on the need for a statement along the lines suggested, and indicated that, after the return of Majors Mota and Soares, when the whole problem of Timor would be re-examined, he would publicly declare that Portugal would honour its commitments in Timor.
  4. The President then went on to review some of the problems they faced in Timor: the problem of distance; the difficulty of reinforcing Portuguese forces in Timor (which at present amounted to only about 400 headquarters staff); the problem of maintaining law and order in a situation where they were almost entirely dependent on local troops, some of whom appeared to be supporting UDT whilst others supported FRETILIN; the complication posed by Indonesian support for APODETI and the intentions of the Indonesian Government which was under pressure from its Generals.
  5. When the President complained about the difficulty of finding out what was going on in Timor, I suggested that Governor Pires appeared to have had some success in reasserting his authority and a statement from Lisbon fully backing him might go a long way towards retaining the loyalty of the local troops who, like some of the politicians in Timor, had presumably been influenced by recent developments in Lisbon. The President took the point, but remained sceptical about Portugal's ability to reassert its authority. However, pressed to say whether the Macao time table still represented Portuguese policy, the President affirmed that it did, although he pointed out that there was room for some 'flexibility' in this policy. The President accepted the point that at present it was impossible to say who really represented the Timorese people although in the context of 'flexibility' he suggested that it was possible for a small group to mobilise public opinion in a relatively short time.

    Portugal

  6. On events in Portugal itself, I said that the Australian Government was following developments closely. It would obviously be improper for me to comment on those developments, but we earnestly hoped that the present crisis would be resolved in a manner which accorded with the aspirations of the great majority of the Portuguese people and not those of a small minority.
  7. As expected, the President made no comment on paragraph 7, but his smile indicated that the point had been well taken.

    Comment

  8. Taken at face value the President's statements on Timor are reassuring, but I am far from sanguine about his ability to carry his Government (such as it is) along with him. He is I think personally convinced of the wisdom of trying to adhere to the Macao time table but it would be out of character for him to assert his views too strongly if he runs into stiff opposition (as well he might). My present view is that resolute action in Timor will depend on whether the moderates in the AFM are able to wield sufficient influence to prevent the radicals from abandoning Timor altogether, and the prospect for this is not bright. The President does accept that Timor is sui generis and not to be compared with the African territories, but when it comes to exercising leadership (as distinct from merely holding the ring) Gomes does not inspire confidence.
  9. My assessment of the interview is that it was a worthwhile exercise to register our views at the highest level and to a relatively sympathetic listener, but it remains to be seen to what extent the President's professed views on Timor will prevail in the present highly volatile situation within the Portuguese Government itself. (This is relevant to paragraph 8 of O.JA1262.)2

COOPER

[NAA: Al0005, 202/113, ix]