40 Letter from Lavett to Renouf

Canberra, 28 September 1974


[matter omitted]1

My main worry is that the tenor of the telegram2 seems to imply that we are getting out too far in front. I believe that it would be appropriate for us at this stage to adopt a more reticent role. You will see, for example, that Soares stressed a desire to keep in close contact with Australia over the coming months in connection with the plebiscite which is to be held on the future of Portuguese Timor. It seems to me that we should be careful about playing as active a role as might be implied here. It is Portugal and Indonesia which need to get closest together; our interest is not so immediate.

You will see, too, that the Minister has mentioned the possibility that we might raise the matter in the United Nations. No doubt it will come to the United Nations, but I believe that we should ponder carefully before we take any initiative. For one thing, the Indonesians (Harry Tjan), far from welcoming such a prospect, have appeared a little apprehensive that we might do so. In his cable CH.ll5723 of 24 September to the Minister,3 the Prime Minister said that 'we have no intention of raising the question of Portuguese Timor in the United Nations, but, as the Indonesians recognise it is inevitable that the future of the territory should be considered by the U.N. at some relatively early stage.' I think this sums up the position.

We have been working on the basis that the Timorese should be allowed to proceed at a deliberate pace towards their decision on their future status. This seemed desirable in view of their backward political state, but it would also allow the Indonesians time to make their case: our assessment is that, if a plebiscite were held soon, the result would be in favour of some form of association with Portugal (not Indonesia). Moreover, it seems that the independence movement has made some impact (though how much is hard to say). In our discussions with the Portuguese (and Indone'sians) we should be stressing the need for deliberation and we should be wary about involving ourselves in an arrangement which might come to fruition in the relatively short term which Soares seems to have in his mind.

I wish to make the same general point about the visit which it has been proposed that Santos, the Minister for Inter-territorial Co-ordination, should pay to Australia. No doubt, if he is to visit Timor, he will inevitably come to Australia for discussions as well. But we should go carefully on this, so as to avoid misapprehension about our motives, and, as Bob Furlonger has recommended,4 we should let the Indonesians know (so that they can extend an invitation at the same time, if they wish to do so).

There are a couple of other points arising out of comments by Malik.

Soares told the Minister that Malik had said that Indonesia did not intend to intervene in Portuguese Timor. It may be a question of what is meant by 'intervention', but it would be unwise to assume that Indonesia will not take any course open to it to further its objective of eventual control. This could be restricted to propaganda, but there is also evidence that Indonesia might be prepared to go further. There is evidence, for example, that the Indonesians have been preparing the ground for a clandestine operation in Portuguese Timor and we have learned from Lisbon today that Ali Murtopo (who is in charge of OPSUS) has applied for a visa to enable him to visit Portuguese Timor in a 'personal' capacity. We must be careful as to how far we become involved in this kind of activity, explicitly or implicitly.

Further, in his discussions with the Minister, Malik discounted the possibility of outside (specifically Chinese) interference in Timor. This simply contradicts the whole Indonesian case, including the case put to the Prime Minister by Soeharto. The Indonesian case has been based on concern over security.

The Portuguese have been saying that Indonesia is not interested in Portuguese Timor. Malik's comments will not at all help in acquainting them with the actual situation.

I have discussed the foregoing in general terms (on the telephone) with Graham Feakes, who has asked me to say that he concurs with it. As you will see, my main concern is that we may find ourselves cast in a wrong light.

[NAA: A1838, 3038/10/1, xi]