176 Cablegram to Canberra

Lisbon, 21 August 1975

O.LB217 SECRET PRIORITY

Portuguese Timor

I saw the Foreign Minister, Dr Mario Ruivo, at 1900 hours this evening.

  1. The Minister said he and the President had just been briefed by Majors Mota and Jonatas who had returned to Lisbon this afternoon. (Soares returned yesterday without reaching Timor.)1 Ruivo said that the situation in Timor was deteriorating rapidly and that to cope with the immediate problem certain emergency measures were necessary. Although foreign nationals did not repeat did not appear to be in imminent danger, fighting was widespread around Dili and in the country and Portugal did not have the means to control it. Hence evacuation measures would have to be considered. Could Australia help? Ruivo thought that all told it would involve about 500 people-that is assuming that most foreign nationals and their families would accept that the time had come to leave. They also had in mind to evacuate some Portuguese civilians and military personnel. A particular problem was about 50 Portuguese troops who were at present besieged in the mountains (he did not say where) and their one and only helicopter had been commandeered by Fretilin. The Portuguese Government hoped that Australia would agree to provide the necessary facilities to assist those who wanted to leave to do so. The Minister said he would be making a similar appeal to the Indonesian Ambassador whom he would be seeing shortly. They were also alerting the IRC Headquarters in Geneva.
  2. The Minister then turned to the political problem. He said that with the best will in the world he saw little possibility of being able to resurrect the Macao timetable for decolonization. Their intention was to leave Governor Pires in Dili with a small staff of about 70 with instructions to try to negotiate some sort of modus vivendi with the political parties. Thus Portugal would retain a 'symbolic' presence in Timor whilst trying to salvage what they could from a situation that was getting out of control. They were also considering possible international political assistance. He mentioned in particular the possibility of a good offices committee (in which they envisage Australia and Indonesia playing a major role) or perhaps referring the question to the Committee of 24. In any event they intended to consult with Waldheim and invite his views. Ruivo would greatly value the Australian Government's views on the situation with which we were now faced.2
  3. I told the Minister that in the light of the Portuguese Government's assessment of the security situation, I was confident that you would be sympathetic to their appeal for evacuation assistance. However, I saw a problem if Australia were asked to evacuate military personnel. If necessary could they be provided with civilian clothes? Ruivo thought that this would not be a problem. (I made no comment on the request for a helicopter to evacuate the 50 military personnel to Dili.)
  4. I said that I was under urgent instructions to seek the Portuguese Government's assistance in establishing the whereabouts of Messrs Grady and Berry3 and we hoped that Governor Pires could intercede with Fretilin and secure their evacuation to Dili. I gave the Minister an aide memoire setting out the facts as we knew them (your O.CH257131). Ruivo said that the Director of Political Affairs, Magalhaes Cruz, had already been instructed to send a cable to Pires asking him to do what he could to secure their release (I had previously left a copy of the aide memoire with Cruz).
  5. On the political problem, I said that I was sure that you would be gravely disturbed by the Portuguese Government's seeming inability to reassert its authority in Timor. It appeared that Portugal had abandoned any hope of meaningful arrangements to determine the wishes of the Timorese people. Did this mean that Portugal had ruled out the possibility of reinforcing its military presence in Timor? Ruivo referred to the current demands on Portuguese forces both at home and in Angola and said that in present circumstances Portugal could not hope to retain more than a symbolic presence in Timor. They must accept the facts of the situation and try to do the best they could. If Australia had any ideas as to how Portugal could handle the problem, he (Ruivo) would be grateful to have them.
  6. On the proposal to internationalise the problem, I pointed out that reference to the UN would have unpredictable consequences. Delegations would take up positions in accordance with their ideological predilections towards the various contending groups in Timor, and the outcome could conceivably bear little relation to what the majority of the Timorese wanted. It was impossible to say at present who the true representatives of the Timorese people were. Ruivo accepted all this but pointed out that their decolonisation policy had worked tolerably well in Africa (Angola excepted). I replied that as the President had acknowledged to me on Monday, Timor could not be equated with the African territories.
  7. I concluded by saying that I would convey the Minister's views to you and would let him have your response as quickly as possible.

    Comment

  8. It is now clear that our pessimism about the Portuguese Government's resolution has proved to be all too well founded. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Portuguese have decided to write off the Timor problem since the retention of a symbolic presence in Timor is unlikely to impress anyone. My initial reaction is that the prospect of early Indonesian intervention is now very real indeed especially since the Portuguese have themselves abandoned any hope of self-determination in Timor. This, coupled with the deteriorating security situation could provide Indonesia with sufficient grounds for action.
  9. You will of course wish to make your own assessment as to whether the security situation is as bad as Ruivo painted it. I have the impression he may have exaggerated it in order to secure an immediate response for evacuation assistance. In any event I would be grateful for your views on this more immediate problem whilst you are considering the longer term aspects.

COOPER

[NAA: A10463, 801/13111/1, xi]