255 Cablegram to Canberra

Jakarta, 9 October 1975


Portuguese Timor

For Renouf from Woolcott

Thank you for your O.CH275467.1 Some comments on the points you made in response to our JA22482 follow.

  1. I agree that our policies must take account of principle and we have never suggested that they should not do so. But as I have argued before, and as the Prime Minister has said, there are circumstances in which our principles need to be tempered by a realistic assessment of our long-term national interest. All countries to a greater or lesser extent subjugate their principles at times to these factors.
  2. It is a matter of assessments to be made elsewhere but I believe that theASEAN countries, with the possible exception of Thailand, will stick with Indonesia even if the going becomes rough (your paragraph three). The four ASEAN Ambassadors here at any rate are confident that their governments will do so.
  3. I agree that support for Fretilin offered by Mozambique and Guyana is ominous in that especially Mozambique's support could influence other Africans who do not know much about Portugal's colony in this part of the world. However Indonesia has made it[s] assessments of United Nations reactions and is prepared to ride out criticisms in the United Nations. It will of course act to blunt this criticism.
  4. I am also surprised that Portugal has hung on as long as it has (your paragraph four). It may be we have been too hard on Portugal but no useful purpose will be served now by seeking to apportion between Portugal, Indonesia, Fretilin and UDT, responsibility for the present situation. But it is surprising that as of today the Portuguese Charge d'Affaires here has still neither been informed from Lisbon of any change of attitude by Portugal to the future of Timor, nor been instructed to discuss this or the related question of talks at senior level with the Indonesians. It is also true that the Portuguese have, as Cruz has told Cooper and Dr Girao has told me, been hoping that Indonesia would invade Timor. But as I have said there is no point in trying to apportion the blame.
  5. As I have suggested in a personal letter dated 4 October3 which you would not have received when your O.CH275467 was despatched the issue on the ground in Timor should be regarded as undecided at least for several weeks yet. Indonesia would certainly not agree that Fretilin is clearly in control in Timor or that arguments to the contrary simply appear to the world at large as a quibble; nor would diplomatic missions here. So far most of the world at large is seeking to avoid involvement in Timor. Fretilin won the early battles and has achieved a degree of control in the countryside. But the Indonesians maintain this has been achieved by force and a measure of intimidation. They regard Fretilin's control as temporary. Moreover, if Indonesia is determined not to accept a de facto Fretilin Government-which is the case-then Indonesia can in the long-term, if not in the short-term, make Fretilin's situation untenable, even if a number of countries were to recognise Fretilin. The Indonesians may tum out to be wrong and Fretilin may consolidate its position in the whole of the territory. But I doubt this at present and it is premature to make such an assumption now. Much of the evidence in support ofFretilin's present position comes from persons who have spoken only with Fretilin leaders.
  6. You say that Indonesia will have to allow for the 'fact' of Fretilin control in its own policy. As I have reported it does not accept Fretilin's control as more than temporary and if we were to urge them to do otherwise I believe that, at this stage, we would be firmly turned down.
  7. It is true that Indonesia's best moment for action was at the end of August and it is somewhat ironic that, notwithstanding the Prime Minister's statement of 26 August, it was concern about Australia's reaction which played a part in the President's decision not to authorise direct intervention without a Portuguese request. In this respect our attitudes may have, to some extent, been self-defeating in that some will argue that Indonesian restraint then has led to the present situation.
  8. Your point about public guidance (your paragraph 10) is noted. However, the Prime Minister and the Minister have decided that we should make what efforts we can to promote a wider public understanding of Indonesian policies and to act to limit the development of hostility towards Indonesia within the Australian community. While the comments in our paragraph 13 may not convince people, they were not of course intended to be comprehensive and should be seen in the context of other points we have made including those in my personal letter to you of 4 October. We are of course not in a position to judge this from here but from numerous visitors, letters and even from sections of the press itself we get the impression that most of the criticism has been stimulated by a relatively small number of politicians, journalists, academics and students and that it does not necessarily represent the views of the majority of Australians. Real damage to the Indonesian relationship would I suggest also invite a strong public and, indeed, political reaction which could harm the Government's standing.
  9. I agree with your point in paragraph eight that what the Prime Minister told President Soeharto in Townsville was not intended to convey a 'carte blanche' to Indonesia; but nor has Indonesia interpreted it as such. I have made the point many times at various levels here that we think Indonesia exaggerates the threat an independent Timor would pose to it. But there is no doubt that the Indonesians themselves are convinced of the long-term dangers of an independent East Timor to them. Most of their immediate neighbours, with the exception of ourselves and possibly PNG, share this fear.
  10. I hope that Ministers do not yet feel they need to consider whether the Government should sit tight and allow the mess to drift on or, as you put it, whether it should 'change course'. (Your para 11.)4
  11. I think it is a time for steady nerves, a calculated assessment of our longer-term national interest, and for a continuing attempt to shape public opinion rather than react to it. A change of course now which, to the Indonesians, could only be in Fretilin's favour, would be at the cost of real damage to our relations with Indonesia and such damage would I suggest generate its own widespread criticism of the Government.
  12. If the Government were however to come to the decision that it needed to change course because it could not contain criticism in Australia of its present policy then it would be imperative to inform the Indonesians as far in advance as possible of any intended change. Indonesia and President Soeharto look to Australia as their nearest and most important neighbour outside of the ASEAN context for support and understanding. They were very pleased with the Prime Minister's statement of the 26 August5 and would feel very let down by a retreat from that position. Our efforts would then have to be directed towards riding out the real damage I believe this would cause to the Australian/Indonesian relationship--and possibly to our standing in the South East Asian region-and to an effort to mend the fences in the years ahead after the dust of Timor settles.


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