254 Record of Conversation Between Joseph, Her Tasning and Kadri

Canberra, 9 October 1975


The Indonesian Ambassador, Her Tasning, accompanied by his Deputy, Mr Kadri, called on me on 9 October. The Ambassador said that he wished to have an off-the-record chat since 'at the local Embassy level' he sensed that relations between Australia and Indonesia were entering a critical testing period over Portuguese Timor. Australian policy to date had shown understanding of the Indonesian position and the difficulties in which Indonesia had been placed. But it was clear that public pressure in Australia was mounting on the Government to break with Indonesia.

[matter omitted]

Australian Policy

  1. I said that I was glad the Ambassador had called. We might indeed be about to enter a critical period over Portuguese Timor. It was well that the air be cleared beforehand. As the Ambassador was aware, throughout the evolution of our policy on Portuguese Timor, the Australian Government had sought to give considerable weight to the Indonesian dimension. But a no-less-important ingredient of our policy had been the need to respect the right of the Timorese people to choose their own future. There may have been some confusion about the status of this second element in Australian policy in the period immediately following the Wonosobo talks. Parts of the Australian press had suggested that Mr Whitlam and President Soeharto had reached a decision that Portuguese Timor should be integrated into Indonesia regardless of what the Timorese might feel. But these reports were inaccurate. The records of the Wonosobo meetings showed quite clearly that President Soeharto and the Prime Minister had agreed that the wishes of the people should be paramount.
  2. The self-determination aspect of Australian policy had later been repeated during the Australian-Indonesian officials' discussions in November last year, and of course it had been underlined in the letter sent by Mr Whitlam to President Soeharto in February of this year. There had been further mutual agreement on the importance of self-determination in the Townsville talks. Of course when Australia spoke about self-determination it had no illusions that a one-man, one-vote plebiscite would prove possible or even desirable. Such a pure act of self-determination had not been carried out in the other Portuguese territories. So why expect it in Timor? Nevertheless, Australia had always felt that there had to be some form of popular consultation in Timor.
  3. Coming to the events of last August, I recalled that when the Ambassador had called on the Acting Minister on 26 August, Mr Whitlam had said that Australia would not wish to 'exercise a veto' over Indonesian policy.1 I said that, speaking quite frankly, the Department had been surprised that Indonesia had not acted in August when there would have been a reasonable degree of international understanding for a 'humanitarian intervention' designed to separate the contestants and save the lives of innocent civilians. But in the event, Indonesia had hesitated, allowing FRETILIN to establish its de facto control and thereby bring an end to the civil war on its own terms. Indonesian intervention in current circumstances would clearly have much less international support.
  4. I said that we were aware that Dr Mochtar had been disappointed at what he felt to have been a negative Australian response to the Joint Authority proposal. But in truth the moment for Indonesian intervention had passed even by the time Dr Santos arrived in Jakarta on 30 August. At the official level we had certainly seen some considerable difficulties in the Joint Authority and related intervention proposals. The important point, however, was that when Dr Santos arrived in Canberra he did not come with a firm Indonesian-Portuguese proposition. Australian Ministers had thus never really addressed themselves to the minutiae of what was intended.
  5. But that was all past history. In regard to the current situation the Department agreed with the Ambassador that we were confronting what could be a difficult period in our relations with Indonesia. The Indonesian Government had outlined to us in Jakarta their plans for a sustained campaign against FRETILIN in Portuguese Timor. These plans envisaged not only the arming and training of UDT and APODETI forces, but the direct and escalating involvement of Indonesian forces as well. It was Australia's understanding that such direct involvement was already under way. We had assumed, for example, that Indonesian forces had been involved in the attack on Batugade on 7 October which had apparently now been re-taken from FRETILIN.
  6. As long as the level of Indonesia's direct engagement in these operations was limited it would presumably be deniable and press and other interest would be tempered. But once the level and frequency of involvement passed a certain threshold, knowledge of it would become widely known, certainly in Australia, and we could expect pressure on the Government to denounce Indonesia's activities. There would always be a risk that Indonesian personnel might be captured and Indonesian complicity would then be exposed.
  7. It was against this background that the Department tended to agree with the Ambassador that we were approaching a testing time in Australian-Indonesian relations.

[matter omitted]

  1. The Ambassador commented that all that I had said confirmed his own fears. He would be very distressed personally if the Timor issue were to become a divisive issue between Australia and Indonesia. It was the bilateral relationship that was paramount. I agreed and said that I felt that the Australian Government should certainly wish to do its best to contain damage to the relationship, but as the Ambassador himself had recognised, there were important elements in the Australian community demanding a clear stand by the Australian Government against what they see as Indonesian aggression in relation to Portuguese Timor.

Talks, Portuguese Prisoners and United Nations Involvement

  1. The discussion turned to the position of FRETILIN and the question of talks. I said that Australia had agreed with Indonesia that Portugal should not deal with FRETILIN alone. FRETILIN had gained its present position by force of arms; this was no act of self­-determination. UDT and APODETI also had to be accommodated in the decolonisation process and in any new rounds of talks. We had been disturbed, however, to detect a moving away by the Indonesian Government from the concept of talks. UDT and APODETI had refused the Portuguese invitation to attend talks and General Panggabean had been quoted in Jakarta newspapers as no longer favouring talks. This reversal of Indonesia's attitude had placed the Australian Government in an awkward position. We had no exaggerated expectations about what a new round of talks might achieve, but it seemed important that no opportunity for negotiations should be shunned. It relieved domestic pressure on the Australian Government if we could point to firm and unequivocal Australian and Indonesian support for negotiations. We therefore hoped that Indonesia would do what it could with UDT and APODETI to persuade them to attend the talks that Portugal was now trying to arrange in Lisbon.

[matter omitted]

Mutual Distrust between Portugal and Indonesia

  1. This lack of trust and mutual suspicion between Portugal and Indonesia now appeared to be deeply engrained. Australia regarded it as a major obstacle to progress in Portuguese Timor. According to Dr Santos, Indonesia had deliberately frustrated his attempts to make contact with UDT. Santos had been particularly stung by the Indonesian action in detaining the Dove aircraft which had been sent from Atauro to Atambua in early September with a message from the UDT leaders. The Portuguese had also convinced themselves that Indonesia had deliberately obstructed the earlier Soares mission. The seeds of further distrust had been sown by the misunderstandings which arose during the first round of discussions in Jakarta on the joint authority proposal and the related proposal for a Portuguese-sanctioned Indonesian intervention. The latest example of misunderstanding had arisen over the plan developed by Dr Santos following his return to Lisbon and which, despite some obvious lacunae, had seemed to us to offer some prospect of mutual agreement between Portugal and Indonesia on the future of Timor. In the event we had been disturbed to discover that details of the plan, including those aspects relating to integration with Indonesia, had either not been conveyed to, or were being discounted in Jakarta. I concluded that if the release of the Portuguese prisoners did nothing else, it might go some way towards re-establishing a sense of rapport between Portugal and Indonesia.

ASEAN Involvement

I said that it seemed to us in Canberra that Indonesia's position in relation to Portuguese Timor had the support, if only tacit, of all of its ASEAN partners as well as other Asian countries like India. Yet, as far as I knew, Malaysia was the only country to have come out vocally in support. It would clearly help the domestic position in Australia if we could point to strong public support in ASEAN for Indonesia. It was perhaps a pity in this regard that the next ASEAN Foreign Ministers' meeting was still some month or two away. An ASEAN communique backing Indonesia over Timor would certainly strengthen Indonesia's hand internationally.

The Future

  1. The Ambassador responded that Indonesia itself was highly suspicious of Portugal. Indonesia still suspected that Portugal was intending to hand over power to FRETILIN. This would be completely unacceptable to Indonesia. The Ambassador added that Indonesia's position was a highly principled one. Indonesia stood for genuine self-determination. Were FRETILIN and its platform of independence to be endorsed by the majority of people in a genuine act of free choice Indonesia would accept this.
  2. I responded that, speaking very frankly, what the Ambassador had just said surprised me. We had been informed at very senior levels in Jakarta that for Indonesia an independent Timor was simply not acceptable and certainly not one under FRETILIN's control. This position had been communicated to us both before and after the events of August. The implication, indeed explanation, conveyed to us was that Indonesia would ensure, through covert as well as overt means, that pro-independence parties would never win any act of self-determination and that Indonesia would take the steps necessary to ensure that FRETILIN's situation remained untenable. I said that there had always been the seeds of difficulties for Australian-Indonesian relations in this regard. For, as the Ambassador would be aware, the Australian Government had never accepted Indonesia's contention that an independent Timor, even under FRETILIN control, could in any way pose a threat to Indonesia. We had been unable to detect the slightest hint of Soviet or Chinese interest in the territory. We had always assumed that both Moscow and Peking would place their relationship with Indonesia above any ephemeral advantage they might feel was offered them in Portuguese Timor. Their studied silence on Portuguese Timor to date suggested that this assessment was a correct one.
  3. I went on to speculate that FRETILIN appeared to be in a strong position in Portuguese Timor and was unlikely to be easily dislodged. If after some weeks FRETILIN was able to consolidate its control we could arrive at a point where Indonesia and Australia might both need to consider whether the reality of that control should not be recognised. Neither the Ambassador nor Mr Kadri rose to this bait.

[matter omitted]


  1. As will be seen I responded to the Ambassador's request for a frank, no-holds-barred, discussion. While I did not go as far as to say this I tried to imply that Indonesia's current tactics run the risk of creating substantial problems for the Australian Government. In effect Indonesia appears to have decided on a course which offers the prospects of a protracted war of attrition with FRETILIN forces, which holds little chance of early success, but which will involve the use of Indonesian troops on a scale which cannot go undiscovered and can thus be expected to evoke criticism from the press and public opinion in Australia thereby giving rise to heavy strain on the Australian-Indonesian relationship.

[NAA: A1838, 3038/10/1, xxxiv]