355 Cablegram to Canberra

New York, 2 December 1975


Portuguese Timor: United Nations

Reference telecon Feakes/A. D. Campbell.1 Following is text of Statement by latter in Fourth Committee on 2 December:


We are grateful to the Delegation of Portugal for the detailed and informative statement just made to the Committee.

This expression of Australian views on the situation in relation to Portuguese Timor, while traversing some of the same ground covered by the administering power, may help to add a regional perspective to the Committee's consideration, and indeed that of a close neighbour of the colony and island of Timor.

From the time of the overthrow of the Caetano regime in Lisbon and the subsequent decision of the Portuguese to shed their overseas territories, the Australian Government had hoped that the decolonisation process in Portuguese Timor could proceed in an orderly fashion which allowed the people of the territory to decide their own future.

We had hoped that Portugal would remain in control for a period long enough for the political consciousness of the people to develop to the point where there was a substantial measure of agreement regarding the future.

The need for orderly progress had also been of paramount importance in view of the interest of the countries of the region, particularly Indonesia but also Australia and other regional countries, in ensuring that the territory would not emerge in a way which would have an unsettling effect on the region. It was also important because of the essentially immature nature of the rival political factions.

Only a month before 10 August, when the present political crisis began in Portuguese Timor, the Portuguese introduced a program of decolonisation for the territory of a kind which would have met the objectives already mentioned. This program, known as the Macao Program, provided for a series of clearly defined steps to bring the territory to the point where the political future of the territory would have been decided by the people themselves.

The program looked to the election of a popular assembly in October 1976. The assembly would have had the task of deciding the political future of the territory. The three major Timorese political groups, FRETILIN, UDT and APODETI, all took part in the preliminary discussions in Dili about the program, and, although FRETILIN did not attend the later talks in June in Macao, all three parties were to have been invited to take part in the election next year and to participate in the organs of government to be established before then.

The Macao Program did not seek to anticipate the Timorese people's choice. There was, for instance, no prior commitment to either separate independence or independence through integration with Indonesia. The choice was to be left to the people. In either event, the process would have been based on popular choice.

These hopes have unhappily not been borne out. A struggle for supremacy among the Timorese political groups erupted in early August. From this struggle the FRETILIN party, aided by the Tirnorese army units and by access to the arms left behind by Portugal, emerged as initially stronger than its rivals.

Australia's wish had been that the fighting could have been brought to an early end and that agreement on the future of the territory could then be reached through negotiation between Portugal, the administering authority, and the contending Timorese factions. It follows that the Australian Government welcomed the announcement in Rome on 3 November following the meeting of the Portuguese and Indonesian Foreign Ministers that both Governments would work together to try to promote early round-table talks in which all the Timorese parties would participate. Australia agreed that, were all the parties to wish it, Australia should be prepared to provide a venue for such talks. This offer has recently been reiterated by the Australian Government.

In the event, the FRETILIN group, in control of Dili and, still, in many other parts of the territory, has now unilaterally proclaimed independence. It has held to the view that FRETILIN alone is the authentic and legitimate voice of the people of Portuguese Timor. It has by its action rejected the notion that its rivals, UDT and APODETI, have anything further to contribute to a possible resumption of the decolonisation process.

FRETILIN's action has aggravated an already tense situation in Portuguese Timor. It has been rejected by the other Timorese parties. It has provoked those other parties, favouring integration with neighbouring Indonesia, to issue their own declaration proclaiming the integration of Portuguese Timor with Indonesia.

The Australian Government does not recognise the unilateral declaration of independence by FRETILIN. Nor does it regard the counter declaration by UDT and APODETI as having legal force. It continues to regard the Government of Portugal as legally and constitutionally sovereign in Portuguese Timor.

Australia does not pretend to know what the people of Portuguese Timor want. But we do want them to have the opportunity to say what they want. It could be that they want FRETILIN and independence under FRETILIN, but it cannot be assumed that that is so simply because of FRETILIN's initial military successes against its rivals. These matters should not be settled by force of arms: what if the Timorese army had decided to side with UDT, or with APODETIĀ­—or had staged a purely military coup? Of course, nor can UDT or APODETI claim to speak for the people of Portuguese Timor simply because they have been able to demonstrate some military capacity in conflict with FRETILIN. It may well be that the people of East Timor may prefer to achieve their independence by uniting with the ethnically identical people of Indonesian Timor. But these matters, to repeat, should not be settled by force.

The Australian position is clear. There are three contending parties in Portuguese Timor. They have all emerged in less than eighteen months. No one of them has established the right to speak as the authentic voice of all the people of Eastern Timor. They can not in our view expect credence to be given to unilateral declarations on the method of attaining independence. Instead they should each co-operate with the Portuguese Government to restore a decolonisation program in which the claims of all three could be satisfactorily tested. Only then might we speak of self-determination or accept any particular party's claims.

Our view remains therefore that talks between the Timorese parties and Portugal continue to offer the best hope of bringing an end to the continuing conflict in Timor. We believe that the United Nations would be doing a great service to the people of Timor if it were now to put its weight behind the proposal for talks. The aim should be to bring about a restoration of an orderly process of decolonisation in the territory in a way which should enable the people of the territory to decide their own future in the light of all options available to them.


[NAA: Al838, 906/30/14/3, i]