293 Record of Conversation Between Taylor, Rodgers and Sunarso

Jakarta, 24 October 1975

SECRET AUSTEO

Portuguese Timor

Mr Taylor opened the conversation by referring to the various reports concerning the fate of the five missing Australian journalists in Portuguese Timor. He told Sunarso that Johnson (Third Secretary), who is currently in Kupang, had received from the Governor's office a statement issued by UDT, Apodeti and KOTA leaders. It said that while UDT, Apodeti and KOTA forces were mounting their recent attack on Balibo Fort, they had come under fire from a house. They had blown up the house and it had caught fire. Subsequently, 15 bodies had been found inside the house. Some of the bodies, the statement said, were of white men. (See JA2652.)1

  1. We referred to a photograph in Berita Yudha of 24 October which reportedly showed the house in question. While far from conclusive, the photograph suggested that damage to the house had not been as extensive as implied in the UDT/Apodeti/KOTA statement.
  2. We made it clear to Sunarso that pressures could develop on the Australian Government which might create difficulties in our relations. Sunarso would be aware of the Ambassador's meeting with Malik in which the Ambassador had explained that if press reports of Indonesian involvement in Portuguese Timor were correct, the Australian Government would be extremely disappointed.2 Elements in Australian society unfriendly to Indonesia were already active on the Timor issue. The fate of the missing journalists was an emotional issue which would further inflame these feelings. In addition the Australian Government was concerned to provide the next-of-kin with advice which would end the uncertainty they were now experiencing.
  3. Taylor mentioned that the Embassy had been in close contact with the Indonesian Department of Foreign Affairs over the missing journalists. Although we had been told several times that an answer would soon be forthcoming, it had not eventuated. Could Sunarso help?
  4. Sunarso said in reply that the Indonesians understood our concern in the matter. They would like to help if possible (later he intimated the public difficulties for the Indonesians in being seen to be too well informed). Sunarso said that the fate of the journalists was not yet clear. He said that the person who had real authority in this matter was General Benny Moerdani (who is currently out of the country). Subsequently, Sunarso said that Moerdani would have to authorise the reply that came to us on the question of the missing journalists. Sunarso, who is himself travelling abroad, would meet Moerdani in Tokyo on 29 October and would arrange to pass any available information on to us.
  5. Taylor said that we hoped that a reply might be had before then. Moerdani had been out of the country for some time. Surely someone else could authorise a reply? Sunarso repeated that the final authority in the matter lay with Moerdani.
  6. Sunarso volunteered that if UDT/Apodeti had been accompanied by Indonesian forces during the assault on Balibo (which he said they had been), then there was no likelihood that the journalists had been captured and then killed. If they had been killed, it would have been during the battle. (He mentioned that the Indonesians had recoilless rifles and these may well have been used during the attack on the house.)
  7. Taylor re-emphasised our anxiety to obtain hard information on the fate of the journalists. If they were dead, we would wish to recover what personal effects we could and we would want to satisfy Australian legal requirements as to the nature of death and so forth. We would also, of course, want to satisfy the wishes of the next-of-kin concerning the remains. Sunarso replied that he understood this.
  8. In reply to a question as to whether it would help the investigation if Johnson went to Atambua, Sunarso said that Atambua was a 'closed' area.
  9. Taylor then asked Sunarso about the situation on the ground in Portuguese Timor. Had Fretilin proved stronger than the Indonesians had anticipated? Sunarso said that Fretilin's strength had come as something of a surprise. But he said that he did not at this stage have a lot of information about the situation on the ground.
  10. On the question of outside assistance for Fretilin, Taylor drew Sunarso's attention to the difficulties for us which reports about Australian assistance for Fretilin (such as the recent report from Macao which was not true as far as we knew) might pose. Sunarso said that he was well aware of the difference between the Australian Government's attitude towards Portuguese Timor and that of certain individuals and groups in Australia.
  11. Taylor asked about the Indonesian position in regard to talks. Sunarso indicated that there were two streams of thinking in the Indonesian position. On the one hand, if the talks went ahead next month, it was the Indonesian intention that anti-Fretilin forces would control the area bounded by Balibo/Maliana and Bobonaro prior to the talks. This area of control by the anti-Fretilin forces would be used to demonstrate that Fretilin was not in complete control of Portuguese Timor. The Indonesians would hope for a return to a Macao-style decolonisation procedure which would eventually lead to a referendum, the result of which Indonesia would 'influence'.
  12. On the other hand, if the talks did not eventuate or did not lead to a satisfactory decolonisation process, Indonesia would have to increase its level of activity on the ground. It would do this. Indonesia had made a commitment and would stick to it. We pointed out that the Australian Government could not condone Indonesian military intervention in Portuguese Timor.We referred to the Ambassador's representations to Malik that if Australian press reports about Indonesian military involvement in Portuguese Timor were correct then the Australian Government would be very disappointed. Taylor told Sunarso that Australia hoped very much that talks between the interested parties on the future of Portuguese Timor would soon eventuate.

[NAA: A10463, 801/13/11/5, i]