180 Cablegram to Canberra

New York, 23 August 1975


Portuguese Timor

Ref 0.UN3620 1

Almeida Santos saw Salim late last night 22 August. Santos reviewed the situation in Timor his main emphasis being on the plight of the thousand or more expatriates to be evacuated. He referred to the appeals for assistance with evacuation already made to Australia, Indonesia and the ICRC. He was gravely concerned with the danger to those grouped in the Dili harbour area and at the demoralization of the 400 Portuguese troops with them. The local Timorese soldiers had all gone their own ways according to their political inclinations.

  1. Santos sought an appeal by the Secretary-General and/or Salim to strengthen those already made by the Portuguese Government concerning the humanitarian need for emergency assistance with the present problem. Salim did not commit himself on this point but suggested that the Secretary-General would have no difficulty in making an immediate unofficial appeal to neighbouring countries. My impression is that Salim may have been a little surprised to find Santos concentrating so much on the problem of the expatriates although he fully understands their plight.
  2. There was apparently very little discussion between Santos and Salim of possible longer term or political moves. Without any precise purpose having been discussed Salim indicated that an extra-sessional meeting of the Committee of Twenty-Four could of course be considered if required. Santos speculated that the political crisis would probably not worsen for the moment while UDT remained in general control but seemed convinced that the Indonesians would move in if Fretilin were to take over. He emphasised that Portugal had to all intents and purposes lost control on the ground and was most anxious to establish some form of international accountability for the territory. He raised the question of a possible United Nations committee of good offices.
  3. Salim and the Secretariat officer present (Tanaka) emphasised that such an initiative would need most careful preparation and that any precise terms of reference for a committee of good offices would need the sanction of either the Security Council or the General Assembly. Recommendations could of course be made by the Committee of Twenty-Four but it was very doubtful that the Committee could make a contribution beyond that. The only exception was that the Committee could perhaps agree to ask the Secretary-General, in consultations with itself and the administering power, to establish a committee of good offices leaving the mandate or terms of reference for determination by the Assembly or Security Council. All in all they told Santos that it would be necessary to proceed very cautiously and the discussion was left quite open with no commitment made by Salim for any precise action to be taken by the Committee. Santos was told that the Bureau would be informed and he noted particularly that this included Australian and Indonesian representatives. He also noted that Sani was returning to New York.
  4. Santos mentioned the Philippines, Thailand and New Zealand as being possible members of a committee of good offices additional to countries represented in the Committee of Twenty-Four.

    [matter omitted]2

  5. Anwar Sani has just telephoned on returning to New York. He was with Malik in Buenos Aires when it was decided that he should return rather than proceed to Lima because of the situation in Timor. Sani was worried about a report just received that Fretilin had occupied the Indonesian Consulate in Dili.3 Indonesia, he said, must continue to hold the Portuguese responsible. Even in relation to emergency assistance with evacuation Sani thought that Jakarta would be reluctant to jump in for fear of creating the wrong impression. The danger of some armed incident could not be excluded and any act of self defence by an Indonesian party in such circumstances would almost certainly be misinterpreted. Sani was nevertheless well aware of the opportunities open to Indonesia to exercise a constructive role at this stage and to receive international recognition for doing so. He was convinced however that the Indonesians would want to have Australia alongside them as 'cover'. Sani made a point of saying that the President had been emphatic to him in Jakarta on his last visit that there was no question of any Indonesian claim to the territory and that he would not sanction the use of force. I encouraged Sani to contact Santos and he said he proposed doing so.

    [matter omitted]4

  6. Santos did not know whether the 400 paratroopers would remain in Dili. They were low in morale and probably not inclined to fight against the UDT or Fretilin forces. He proposed however to recommend to Lisbon this afternoon that they should be retained in Dili as some semblance of Portuguese sovereignty. By implication if they leave the Portuguese will regard themselves as being virtually powerless in relation to the territory.
  7. Turning to the political problem Santos was under the impression that Australia would ultimately be prepared to serve on a United Nations committee of good offices which he seemed to see as being essentially a visiting mission. He had in mind that this would be composed of Portugal, Indonesia, Australia and perhaps one or two other neighbouring countries. Its purpose, if agreed, would be to visit the territory in the very near future on a fact-finding basis but also with a view to making recommendations regarding to whom and by what means the Portuguese should transfer sovereignty. He said he understood that this proposal would be considered urgently within the Bureau of the Committee of Twenty-Four. I made no commitment in this regard. The Secretary-General had indicated that the establishment of a committee of good offices would not be within his competence.
  8. Santos proposes returning to Lisbon on Monday 25 August and then travelling next week to Timor if conditions there permit. In any event he said he would like to visit Canberra and Jakarta next week for urgent consultations on both the immediate and longer term problems of the territory and especially to pursue consideration of the idea of a committee of good offices.
  9. Santos proposed seeing Anwar Sani later today.


[NAA: Al0463, 801/13/11/1, xii]