24 Brief for Whitlam

Canberra, 2 September 1974


Prime Minister's Visit to Indonesia-Portuguese Timor

During your forthcoming visit to Indonesia, President Soeharto will expect to receive an authoritative statement from you of Australia's attitude towards Portuguese Timor. A visit to Canberra between 20 and 22 August by Mr Harry Tjan of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta to sound out our thinking at official level confirmed earlier indications of the importance that President Soeharto attaches to this aspect of your visit. Mr Tjan is President Soeharto's principal adviser on Portuguese Timor.

  1. There is uncertainty about the future of Portuguese Timor which arises from Portugal's commitment to the decolonisation of its overseas territories. Portuguese Timor does not have great intrinsic importance in terms of population (about 650,000), area (14,925 square kms) or economic resources, unless substantial oil discoveries are made. It is an historical anachronism that resulted from the arbitrary division of Timor between the Netherlands and Portugal. Portuguese tutelage for over 450 years has, however, produced a distinct sense of identity in Portuguese Timor. The territory is at a primary stage of political development. Considerable progress is needed in the political awareness and education of the Timorese people before they could exercise a well-based choice in relation to their political future.
  2. The Portuguese have not announced firm plans for the future of Portuguese Timor which, compared with the African territories, has low priority in their thinking. The broad possibilities for Portuguese Timor lie between continuing association with Portugal, association with Indonesia and independence. The Portuguese seem disposed to accept whatever the Timorese people may decide about their own future. At the same time, they are sensitive to international opinion about their management of the decolonization process.
  3. The colonial status quo in Portuguese Timor suited the Indonesians. Now that the future of the territory is in question, the thrust of their thinking is that they would rather absorb Portuguese Timor than see it emerge into independence. This preference underlies the Indonesians' strong interest in Australia's attitude and the importance of Portuguese Timor in your discussions with President Soeharto. There is some evidence of policy differences among the Indonesians, notably on the part of Adam Malik who is at odds with the defence and security establishment. The latter are anxious to discount a letter that Malik gave to Ramos Horta, the leader of the Timorese Social Democratic Association, which virtually endorsed Portuguese Timor's right to claim independence. It is our impression that President Soeharto finds the view that Indonesia should absorb Portuguese Timor persuasive. He has endorsed the idea of its integration into the unitary Republic of Indonesia, subject to the condition that integration should not prejudice regional harmony, and has directed the Governor of Indonesian Timor to find a solution along these lines.
  4. Given the prevailing Indonesian belief that the integration of Portuguese Timor into Indonesia would be in the interests of the region, the Indonesians' view of what might prejudice regional harmony could differ appreciably from our own. The presidential agency OPSUS ('Special Operations') has planned a covert political operation to persuade the people of Portuguese Timor to accept absorption into Indonesia. Agents to carry out the operation are already in place in Indonesian Timor. We believe that, during his visit to Canberra, we persuaded Harry Tjan to advise President Soeharto against proceeding with the operation before you visit Indonesia.
  5. The importance of Portuguese Timor to Australia's interests stems from its location some 250 miles from Darwin, and near our resources zone and close to major shipping routes; its prospective influence on our relations with Indonesia and other regional neighbours, particularly PNG; its effect on opinion in Australia; and the status of Portuguese Timor as a poor and backward territory in process of decolonization. The future of the territory is inevitably of strategic interest to Australia, although the Defence Committee has not yet considered and defined the precise nature of that strategic interest nor placed it in the context of Australia's wider strategic interests in relations with Indonesia and the region as a whole. It is clear that we share a strategic interest with Indonesia in excluding any potentially hostile external influence from Portuguese Timor and in avoiding a situation in which developments in Portuguese Timor (including Indonesia's relations with it) have an unsettling effect on regional relations. We should aim with the Indonesians at maintaining a dialogue about the problem that Portuguese Timor represents in order to divert them from a forward policy in Timor that would place our other interests at risk. Our stance in the United Nations in support of the principle of self-determination, including in respect of Portugal's African territories, commits us to this principle in the case of Portuguese Timor. The principle should not exclude any of the three future options for Portuguese Timor outlined in paragraph 3 above. The economic backwardness of Portuguese Timor provides compelling humanitarian grounds for some Australian aid.
  6. Indonesia regards itself as the successor state to the Netherlands East Indies. By definition, this claim does not extend to Portuguese Timor. During Confrontation, the Indonesians made half-hearted efforts at subversion in Portuguese Timor but, at that time, and subsequently, they have made it clear that they make no legal claim to the territory. However, the Indonesians undoubtedly see Portuguese Timor as a geographical extension of their own territory, and, for cultural, ethnic and historical reasons, they consider that its inclusion in Indonesia is natural and desirable and would represent valid decolonization. They also have strategic anxieties about Portuguese Timor, which seem to us understandable. The Indonesians are concerned that an independent Portuguese Timor would be poor and weak, and that it would be prey to foreign influence hostile to Indonesia which would seek to use Portuguese Timor as a channel to threaten Indonesia's security and national unity. We believe that President Soeharto is likely to emphasise this strategic interest in his discussion with you and that he might invite you to agree that the inclusion of Portuguese Timor in Indonesia would be in the strategic interests of Australia and the region generally, as well as of Indonesia itself.
  7. According to Harry Tjan's account, as set out in the attached record,1 Portuguese Timor has become an urgent issue for Indonesia, partly through misapprehension of Australia's attitude. Events such as the visit to Portuguese Timor by Australian officials in June (actually, for fact-finding purposes), the subsequent visit to Australia by Ramos Horta, who is the principal advocate of independence for Portuguese Timor, and widespread rumours that Australia intends to re-establish a consulate in Dili led the Indonesians to conclude that we were embarking on a forward policy in Portuguese Timor. According to Tjan, Adam Malik in particular embraced this view and in consequence has expressed antagonism towards Australia. Another factor which influenced the Indonesians' decision to plan a political operation in Portuguese Timor was the conviction that the Portuguese were on the point of abandoning Timor to the independence party. This belief arose from misunderstanding of a recent Portuguese statement in the United Nations.
  8. Against this background, we suggest that you could make the following points in your discussion with President Soeharto:
    1. Australia has no ambitions in Portuguese Timor. As demonstrated in PNG, our concern is to withdraw from colonial responsibilities. Nevertheless Australia must be concerned with the future of the territory because of its location close to Australia, its importance to Indonesia and the effects of its future disposition on other regional neighbours, particularly PNG.
    2. Australia appreciates Indonesia's grounds for strategic concern about Portuguese Timor and is itself concerned:
      1. that potentially hostile external influence should be excluded from Portuguese Timor; and
      2. that the situation in Portuguese Timor should not have an unsettling effect on the region.
    3. In keeping with the general tenor of Australia's foreign policy and our attitude towards Portugal's African territories, we are committed to decolonization in Portuguese Timor on the basis of valid self-determination. Australia would be bound by the result of a genuine and internationally acceptable act of self-determination in Portuguese Timor.
    4. On this basis any of the three options for the future of the territory-continuing association with Portugal, independence, or incorporation into Indonesia-would be legitimate in Australia's view.
    5. Conversely, any future disposition of Portuguese Timor which was contrary to the wishes of its people would be likely, in Australia's view, to have a destabilising influence in the region. It would be important for this reason that the act of self-determination should be accepted as a genuine test of Timorese opinion by the Governments and people of countries in the region.
    6. Because of the political and economic backwardness of Portuguese Timor, there is a need to proceed slowly and deliberately towards self-determination in order to prepare the people. Australia believes that the Portuguese would accept this view if it was put to them by Australia and Indonesia.
    7. You could suggest that Australia and Indonesia might coordinate an approach along these lines to Portugal. Such coordination could extend to the reopening of an Indonesian mission in Lisbon and Australian mission in Dili to facilitate understanding and increase pressure on the Portuguese to act responsibly in Timor.
    8. Australia hopes that Indonesia understands its interests in relation to Portuguese Timor. Australia has so far proceeded very cautiously but the government will come under increasing pressure to declare its attitude on Portuguese Timor. You could say that, having discussed Portuguese Timor with President Soeharto, you had in mind initiating steps towards developing Australia's bilateral relations with Portuguese Timor such as offering some scholarships for Timorese students and inviting a representative group of Timorese political leaders to visit Australia. You could usefully explain to President Soeharto that Ramos Horta's visit was at his own initiative and that he was deliberately kept at arms length, not leas[t] because we did not wish to give the impression of according priority in advance of an act of self-determination to Horta's advocacy of independence. You could encourage the Indonesians to adopt a similar approach to their relations with Portuguese Timor and emphasize the importance of breaking down the artificial barriers that have isolated the territory from its neighbours.
    9. You could conclude by saying that, underlying Australia's attitude, is the wish that Portuguese Timor should not become an obstacle to good relations between Australia and Indonesia. You would be worried if Australian public opinion became agitated about developments in Portuguese Timor or if they gave PNG grounds for concern. Differences may develop from time-to-time between Australia and Indonesia about Portuguese Timor because the interests of the two countries are not identical. This possibility makes it all the more important to keep closely in touch.
  9. Our recent discussions with Harry Tjan did much to reduce misconceptions on both sides. We believe that the approach which we advocate would satisfy President Soeharto and would at the same time serve our interest in heading-off the Indonesians from over-hasty action that could disturb public opinion in Australia or confidence in PNG.2

[NAA: A10463, 801/13/1111, iii]