284 Telegraph Message to Canberra

Darwin, 22 October 1975, 11.28 a.m.


Portuguese Timor-Political Situation

For Feakes/Joseph; from Starey

  1. The following assessment is mainly derived from indirect sources and is made without the benefit of intelligence available in Canberra.It reflects, apart from my brief visit to Dili on 17 October, conversations over the past three weeks with media representatives, ICRC/Red Cross officials and the Portuguese Mission in Darwin. While the picture that emerges is far from complete, some important aspects of the situation can be set down, and their implications discussed.
  2. Firstly, Fretilin exercises effective control over most of Portuguese Timor, with the increasingly important exception of the disputed border areas. The armed manpower available to Fretilin has been augmented from a basic core of 3,000 regular soldiers to a total of around 30,000 men, necessarily mainly composed of hastily armed and undertrained militia. These latter troops have proved somewhat unruly and have, I believe, now been temporarily disarmed. This force would be less than formidable in the absence of an adequate supply of arms. But evidence proffered to me suggests that the pro-Fretilin forces are in possession of an extraordinarily large supply of arms and ammunition. It appears that the Portuguese stockpiled an arsenal of considerable proportions. For example, one eyewitness account is of a cache of 500 boxes of 1,000 rounds each of small-arms (SLR) ammunition, and of huge quantities of 81mm mortar rounds. Fretilin is understood to have taken steps to disperse its arms holding.
  3. Secondly, Fretilin appears to have presented itself quite effectively to the people as the standard-bearer of nationalism, democracy and freedom from foreign domination. While popular understanding of the issues at stake is undoubtedly at a very low level, and tribal loyalties loom as large as ever, there appears to be general acceptance of the Fretilin/freedom nexus. A probable explanation for this is that Fretilin was the only one of the major parties which worked seriously at grass roots level prior to the recent politico/military developments.
  4. The Fretilin leadership is now presenting, for whatever reasons, a moderate face. The key figures are Vice-President Lobato1 and Secretary-General Fernandez. (President Amaral is generally regarded as little more than a figurehead.) Lobato and Fernandez claim to stand for social democracy at home and a neutral stance in foreign policy, including close diplomatic and trade links with Australia and Indonesia. Horta is pictured as a shrewd pragmatist intent on preserving his place in the Fretilin leadership. There are several extreme left ideologues in and around the Central Committee, the most important of whom is Alkatari. At present, however, their influence on policy making is very limited.
  5. The current mood of the Fretilin leadership is described as being a mixture of defiance and apprehension: defiance in the sense of a conviction that a point of no return has been reached, and that attempts to subjugate Fretilin militarily will be contested to the bitter end by means of protracted guerrilla warfare: and apprehension in the sense that Fretilin has so far failed to attract widespread international support, particularly in the region itself. (Not much comfort is taken from the endorsement of the Indo-China states and some African countries.) Coupled with this sense of isolation is the realisation that food, and particularly fuel, supplies are running down. (With regard to the latter there is now no daytime electricity or night time water supply.)
  6. It is against this background of military and political success, coupled with anxieties about the future that the Fretilin leaders view their projected bilateral talks in Lisbon. They have let it be known to media and ICRC representatives that their major objective will be to persuade the Portuguese to return to Timor, and to preside over an orderly decolonization program. They believe that at such time as the people are able to express their will through democratic means, they will declare for independence. They were asserting, at least until the most recent flare-up in the border area, that the only alternative to a program leading to an act of free choice was a unilateral declaration of independence by a Fretilin government, and the defence of that action by arms. The above appears to me to represent the essence of the situation as seen through Fretilin eyes. It would be imprudent to under-estimate Fretilin's readiness to make sacrifices, its degree of popular support, or its ability to wage a prolonged guerrilla resistance in the rugged Timor terrain. In other words, the prospects for a rapid and relatively peaceful incorporation of Portuguese Timor into Indonesia would seem, despite Fretilin's approach to Suharto for talks, very poor.
  7. A fundamental change of political approach on the part of key Fretilin leaders would of course radically alter this picture, but I cannot comment on that possibility except to say that no evidence of it has yet come to light in Darwin. It is apparent that the critical point of the current Timor crisis is not far away. A crucial factor will be the degree to which the various interested parties adhere to their present policy objectives.
  8. In this connection, and in view of known Indonesian fears about the possible emergence of a communist enclave on their border, it seems at least feasible that Indonesia's and Australia's interests would best be served by an early end to hostilities and the institution of talks, bilaterally or collectively, between Portugal, Indonesia and the major Timorese protagonists. Such talks would be especially timely while moderation prevails in the Fretilin leadership, and before the latter is driven to the point of taking to the hills, for there can be no doubt that Fretilin leaders are now fully alive to the intensity oflndonesian interest in the situation and that this awareness would temper the Fretilin stance in talks about Portuguese Timor's political future. In other words, would it not be better in the continued absence of a decisive Indonesian military thrust to take over East Timor, for the search for a satisfactory long term solution to be now pursued diplomatically rather than have the situation on the ground deteriorate into a bitter, and probably indecisive, civil war, in the course of which Fretilin would presumably fall completely under communist control.2

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