250 Cablegram to Canberra

Jakarta, 3 October 1975


Portuguese Timor

Ref, O.CH2731531

Our updated assessment of the situation in Portuguese Timor follows.

  1. We are already at the threshold of a testing period in our relations with Indonesia. A situation in Portuguese Timor which we most wanted to see avoided, namely one involving a protracted and confused political/military struggle, has begun. Our attitude towards this situation as it evolves will, to a large extent, determine the nature of our relations with Indonesia and, to a lesser extent, with other countries in the region in the next few years and possibly beyond.

    Indonesian Policy

  2. We consider that Indonesia intends to escalate its involvement in Portuguese Timor. We do not think it can be dissuaded from this course especially as most of the countries which could, if they acted in concert, influence Indonesia consider that the best future for East Timor is as part of Indonesia and will acquiesce in Indonesian pressure to bring this about. As the number of Indonesians in the territory increases, it will become more difficult, if not impossible, to prevent some of the involvement from becoming known publicly. I also have doubts which are shared by the Defence Adviser, about the efficiency with which Indonesia will conduct its covert and semi-covert operations. This could make for further complications.
  3. The mood in Jakarta if anything is hardening. Attempts to adopt what Indonesia considers a 'correct' approach to Portugal have produced only frustrations. Indonesia feels deeply that its present difficulties over Timor have been caused by Portugal's refusal to accept its responsibilities as the governing authority, specifically to restore law and order there or, if it could not do so, then to ask the only country which could do so. There is some truth in this. Portugal is now largely distrusted and discredited here. The application of steadily increasing covert military pressure in support of anti-Fretilin forces is seen as the only way, short of outright invasion, of preventing an unwanted, potentially dangerous, economically weak, unviable, left-leaning, de facto, independent East Timor. I still do not think the President will agree to outright invasion, although the pressure on him to do so is continuing to increase. We have first hand evidence of growing and general impatience with the President's restraint throughout the armed services, especially the army, and this pressure will become even stronger if the present mix of political pressure, support for the refugees, covert actions and the possible use of 'volunteers' or even Timorese 'deserters' is a failure.

[matter omitted]2

Australian Policy

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  1. In addition to the policy suggested in paragraphs 23 and 24 of JA16153 which after careful reconsideration I would adhere to, I suggest that our public attitude towards the issue include the following points:-
    • responsibility for the breakdown of the decolonisation process in Timor rests with Portugal, UDT and Fretilin; not Indonesia
    • the issue in Portuguese Timor remains undecided notwithstanding Fretilin's present ascendancy.

      Indonesia has a special interest in the future of Timor. In many ways Portuguese Timor is a part of the Indonesian world, as the Prime Minister has said.

    • the right of colonial people to self-determination can only be carried out in Timor in conditions of peace and order and should involve the whole East Timorese community.
  2. As I have said before, I consider it is in the interests of Australia, Indonesia and Portugal to seek a solution which represents the wishes of Portuguese Timor. Even if a genuine act of self-determination is not possible we should certainly continue to encourage Indonesia and Portugal to go through the motions. In this connection Cooper's talk with Cruz (LB3694) provides some encouragement.
  3. But I consider that in encouraging Indonesia and Portugal on this matter we should take care not to push either, particularly Indonesia, into a position where they consider their national interests are threatened by approaches dictated by our own domestic considerations. For instance Indonesia is especially sensitive about the need to restore law and order in the territory before an ordered decolonisation process is re-introduced. Indonesia would not accept that the wishes of the people could be fairly determined while Fretilin held the guns. The idea in paragraph seven of LB369 as it stands would not be acceptable to Indonesia for this reason.5
  4. In a letter to me dated 7 July6 the Minister expressed his concern about the likely sharp public reaction in Australia to any Indonesian military involvement in East Timor. He also referred to the growing sympathy in Australia for the independence of Portuguese Timor. In the same letter, however, the Minister wrote that even if Indonesia were openly to move against Portuguese Timor we would have to do our best to contain the damage to the long-term Australian/Indonesian relationship. I consider this should still be the basis of Australian policy.
  5. I appreciate the domestic problems within the Australian community about Portuguese Timor and I would like to be able to recommend some helpful initiatives which would have some prospect of success and be more than window dressing or grasping at straws. But I find it difficult to do so. Unless we are prepared to declare ourselves a party principal which I would not recommend.
  6. We are in fact moving into a situation in which the Government is facing a critical choice between what I would see as our longer term foreign policy interests and what appear to be mounting domestic pressures to adopt attitudes or policies which would be contrary to those interests.
  7. The Government has now a considerable investment in the sensible pragmatic way it has developed relations with Indonesia, including the Prime Minister's personal contacts with President Soeharto, and I would hope that a hard-headed assessment of our long-term national interest will prevail over the natural political tendency to yield to domestic pressures. These domestic pressures are based, in part I believe, on a lack of understanding of what is a very complex issue.
  8. In reassessing our policy we should also keep in mind the regional context. You will recall that at the meeting of Heads of Mission in South East Asia in July it was one of the main agreed conclusions, endorsed by the Minister, that South East Asia is in many respects the main area of importance for Australia and that, within that area, Indonesia must continue to have some special emphasis in our policy formulation. We are not dealing only with Indonesia and with Australian/Indonesian relations. Our response to the Timor situation will be seen to a considerable extent by other ASEAN countries as a measure of the sincerity of our identification with South East Asia and of our search for a role as a partner on the periphery of South East Asia. We need to avoid as far as we can setting Australia apart from the other countries in the region in which we are situated.

[matter omitted]7


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