389 Submission to Peacock

Canberra, 22 December 1975


Portuguese Timor

With the formation of the new government, and in the light of recent developments in Portuguese Timor itself and of the United Nations proceedings, it is timely to review Australian policy towards Portuguese Timor.

  1. There are two main questions:
    1. Do we want incorporation of Portuguese Timor into Indonesia? and
    2. How far do we want to be involved in the problem of Portuguese Timor?

The incorporation of Portuguese Timor into Indonesia

  1. With the change of regime in Portugal in April 1974, three options emerged for Portuguese Timor: continued association with Portugal for some years; independence at a more or less early date; or integration or association with Indonesia. In the period since April 1974, the first of these options has disappeared and the choice is between independence and association with Indonesia. Australia could live with either of these two options. But, without going into the question at length, we think that Australian interests in Portuguese Timor, deriving from the territory's proximity, its straddling of important shipping routes, its nearness to our sea­ bed resources zone and some small residual Australian commercial interests would all be well served by its incorporation into Indonesia. It is difficult to think of any Australian interest of substance which would suffer as the result of the territory's incorporation into Indonesia. More important for Australian policy, it has become a firm objective of Indonesian national policy, over the last twelve months, that Portuguese Timor should be incorporated willy-nilly into Indonesia. It is an objective to which the Indonesians attach the greatest importance. The Indonesians have remained unresponsive to suggestions from us about the various ways in which they might achieve their objectives in Portuguese Timor, short of incorporating it. Given the importance of Australian relations with Indonesia, there seems no Australian interest in an independent Portuguese Timor which would justify Australian attempts to thwart the Indonesians in the pursuit of their objectives.
  2. Nor are we able to ignore the potential for future difficulties in our relations with Indonesia in an independent East Timor. Evidence to date, including the highly successful activities of Mr Ramos Horta and FRETILIN in soliciting moral and material support from groups in Australia, suggests that a major objective of any independent Timor would be to continue to try to use Australia-and to manipulate Australian public opinion-to ensure continuing Australian support against Indonesian pressures. In effect, if Portuguese Timor were independent and under FRETILIN control, Australia's relationship with Indonesia could become a hostage to FRETILIN, and the seeds would be sown for continuing dissensions and strains in the area of greatest strategic interest to us for years to come.
  3. In addition, an independent Portuguese Timor would be a small, weak state susceptible to outside influence. Admittedly in the Pacific there are already several such states; but to outside powers they do not provide the same means of pressure on large neighbours as an independent Portuguese Timor would do in the case of Indonesia. A further point is the fillip which an independent Portuguese Timor would give to separatist movements in Indonesia and perhaps in Papua New Guinea.
  4. But the main point is that we cannot now alter the course of events in Timor. The Indonesians are already well on their way to integrating East Timor. Indonesian forces now in the territory will remain, whatever the Security Council decides, until Indonesia has her way.

The Manner of Incorporation: Self-determination

  1. The manner in which the Indonesians pursue their objective of incorporating Portuguese Timor into Indonesia clearly remains very important to us. Ideally, this result should come about by an act of self-determination of the people of the territory: they should be able to decide their own political future. Indonesian military intervention to secure the incorporation has raised and will continue to raise a number of difficulties for Australia, namely:
    1. It excites anti-Indonesian sentiment in Australia and makes it more difficult for successive Australian governments to pursue their policies of close cooperation with the Indonesian Government-the program of defence cooperation would be an obvious target for criticism.
    2. It tarnishes the reputation which the present Indonesian Government rightly enjoys for its responsible regional and international policies. Indonesian military intervention in Timor has added to regional tensions, in the short term at least.
    3. It might not be successful. Although it now seems unlikely, the Indonesians might face armed opposition in Portuguese Timor capable of sustaining guerilla warfare for many years-with all that this prospect implies by way of openings for outside intervention, regional tensions and the rise of anti-Indonesian sentiment in Australia and in the territory.
  2. Following on Indonesian military intervention in Portuguese Timor, any act of self-determination will be contrived to bring about the desired result of incorporation with Indonesia. The act of self-determination, we should be prudent to assume, will be more or less falsified. But even if, because of our relations with Indonesia, Australia does not press for the principle of an act of self-determination completely free from outside interference, as Australian governments have done in other colonies, there are several reasons why self-determination should remain an important element in Australian policy. First, international pressure for self­-determination helps to guarantee some measure of decent treatment for the Timorese. It may help curb excesses by the Indonesian administration and armed forces. Second, it is important that the incorporation of Portuguese Timor with Indonesia should be effected in as legally correct and in as internationally acceptable a manner as possible. Third, the abandonment of self-determination as an Australian objective in Portuguese Timor would have a bad effect on Australian public opinion. Fourth, if the Indonesians were to meet with substantial prolonged resistance in Portuguese Timor—the danger touched on in paragraph 7(c) above, and it is too early to exclude it completely-Australia would need to consider a new policy on Portuguese Timor, which, one way or another, would place a greater emphasis on self-determination.

The United Nations

  1. Whether or not Portugal had taken the issue to the Security Council, the United Nations was inevitably involved in Portuguese Timor through the Fourth Committee of the General Assembly and the Committee of Twenty-Four. The problem for Australia has been to try to influence United Nations involvement so that Australian interests were served—or at least suffered the least possible damage. On the one hand, UN involvement in Portuguese Timor serves the humanitarian purpose mentioned in the preceding paragraph and for numerous other reasons it is difficult for an Australian government to oppose UN involvement despite the qualifications attached to Australian support for the principle of self-determination in Portuguese Timor. On the other, it is not in the Australian interest for an internationally responsible regime in Indonesia, such as President Soeharto's, to be condemned publicly in the United Nations. These two considerations will conflict-but on the whole it seems to us that, despite the Indonesians' diplomatic ineptness and their resort to force in Timor, the second consideration should prevail and that we should do what we can to see that Indonesia comes out well from UN consideration of Portuguese Timor.

Australian Involvement in Portuguese Timor

  1. The pressures for Australian involvement in Portuguese Timor are great. The territory is very close, communications between it and the outside world have passed through Australia, there are certain historical connexions which still have an impact on sentiment here and there is a natural public concern about an unstable territory so close to our shores. More important, the FRETILIN leaders, and in particular Mr Ramos Horta, have done all they could to arouse Australian public opinion in order to counter the threat they were right in perceiving from Indonesia.
  2. But if it is accepted, first, that Indonesia is firmly set on taking Portuguese Timor, using as much force as is necessary to achieve her aims, second, that no Australian interest in an independent Portuguese Timor is important enough to justify Australian action to thwart the Indonesians and, third, that good relations with Indonesia are of great importance, then it follows that the policy of the Australian Government should be to limit Australian involvement in Portuguese Timor. The extent to which that policy can be pursued is, of course, itself limited, as the sources of pressure for involvement, the trades unions, the newspapers and the television, private organizations, are not susceptible to government control. But no one can argue that Australia should be as involved in Timor as the Indonesians or the Timorese themselves-or as the Portuguese are for the moment for essentially legal reasons.
  3. In practical terms questions of Australian involvement in Portuguese Timor relate to the extent of Australian participation in relief programs in the territory and to the extent of Australian participation in some United Nations (or UN-sponsored regional) involvement in Portuguese Timor. We think that Australian involvement in aid programs can be managed in the interests of Australian foreign policy if Australian Government aid to Portuguese Timor is channelled through the International Committee of the Red Cross. It follows that it is in the Australian interest that the Indonesians should allow an early resumption of ICRC operations in Timor. It also follows that the Government should avoid entanglement in the operations of Australian non-governmental aid bodies in Timor (many of whom are committed to the FRETILIN cause).
  4. It is not clear how the United Nations will become involved on the ground in Portuguese Timor or to what extent there should be some regional involvement. As to Australia's joining in UN or regional involvement, there are some contributions which can readily be excluded. We could clearly not provide troops or a military presence. As to some Australian civilian contribution to UN or regional involvement, it would be difficult to stand aside, if the Indonesians, the Timorese leaders and the Portuguese want us in. But the Government should be wary, we advise, of suggestions of Australian involvement on the ground in Timor in any form of administrative or supervisory function. Such involvement could easily lead to a situation where the Australian Government was cast in the role of a guarantor of Indonesian good behaviour, which it would be powerless to ensure, or in the role of an accomplice in Indonesian activities, which would provoke considerable problems with Australian domestic opinion.

Meidation and Regional Approaches

  1. The same caution, it seems to us, should inform the Australian Government's attitude towards mediating in the problem of Portuguese Timor and towards initiating a regional approach to it. Moreover, the growth of pro-FRETILIN sentiment in Australia, the material and moral support individual Australians and private organizations have given FRETILIN, and the facilities the FRETILIN leaders have enjoyed here, have had the effect of cutting the ground from any regional or mediatory efforts the Australian Government might wish to consider. Australia is virtually disqualified in the eyes of anti-FRETILIN groups from the role of an impartial mediator. On at least half a dozen occasions the Australian Embassy in Jakarta has raised with the Indonesians, on instructions, the possibility of some regional initiative. The Indonesians showed no interest and indeed appeared to be opposed to regionalizing the problem of Portuguese Timor. It has been obvious that any regional initiative which did not have the active support of Indonesia, as the country in the region most concerned in the problem of Portuguese Timor, would not gain the support of other countries of the region,. whatever Australia might think or do.
  2. We recognize that the policy approach to Portuguese Timor reflected in the preceding paragraphs is not one for which it is easy to gain public support and, if that policy approach were adopted, its public presentation would have to be carefully and skilfully handled. So long as Portuguese Timor remains a public issue in Australia, it would seem reasonable for the two themes of the importance of Australian relations with Indonesia and of Australian attachment to self-determination to be kept in the public eye. Should these two themes be given equal weight, or should the importance of relations with Indonesia be given more weight than self-determination? There has been no recent public exposition of the reasons why relations with Indonesia are important to Australia. It is open to question whether to give one would not stimulate opposition to Indonesia here. We might gain more elbow-room by being critical of the Indonesian Government from time to time. The alternative may be to lie as low as one can, but to do so will, no doubt, give rise to charges of bureaucratic timidity or indifference. We believe that the going will be easier if in our diplomacy we take a step backwards from the Timor dispute and remain as uninvolved as possible.
  3. There will continue to be many difficult issues on which decisions will have to be taken and publicly explained-for example, the Government's attitudes towards trades union bans, towards the continuation of military aid, towards political activities by Timorese in Australia, whether or not to allow Horta back into Australia. These will need to be taken up individually in the light of the Government's general policy on Portuguese Timor.


  1. For use in drawing up recommendations on these issues and in our approach to the more general questions canvassed in this submission, I recommend that you approve the following guidelines:
    1. We should accept that incorporation of East Timor into Indonesia seems fast becoming an accomplished fact. Australia should not resist this trend and, indeed, should accept it as probably now the best solution. Otherwise we should have a running sore in the region poisoning relations between ourselves and the Indonesians for years to come. But if, against present indications, the Indonesians were unable to assert control of Timor, we should be alive to the need to review our policies with a view to persuading the Indonesians to accept something less than the incorporation of Portuguese Timor and a more genuine process of self-determination.
    2. We should continue to remain as detached as we can from the Portuguese Timor problem and avoid becoming a party principal. In practice, such a policy would need to be tempered by the strength of domestic pressure for a more active Australian role. But as a general principle the less involved we are, the easier it will be to adjust to the realities of Indonesian control in Timor. If regional and international opinion pressure grows, Australia may not be able to escape some involvement on the ground in Timor, but we should limit that involvement as much as we can. Certainly, any involvement of Australian military forces is to be excluded.
    3. We should continue to support publicly the need for a process of self-determination in Timor. Even if we believe that a genuine act of self-determination is not possible, we should encourage the Indonesians towards one.
    4. We should continue to explain to the Indonesians the domestic difficulties which the Australian Government faces. We should continue to warn them that, while we understand and do not oppose their basic objectives of integration, we may still need to criticize publicly their methods of achieving it.
    5. In the United Nations we should not play the role of an apologist for Indonesia but, equally, we should show understanding of its special position and not be in the forefront of its critics.1

ALANRENOUF - Secretary

[NAA: A1838. 3038/10/1/2, iii]