79 Submission to Willesee

Canberra, 10 February 1975


Portuguese Timor

There has been a number of recent developments since we last addressed you on the subject of Portuguese Timor. We require guidance on some new proposals advanced in Lisbon by Dr Almeida Santos, the Portuguese Minister for Inter-territorial Co-ordination. We also seek your approval for a course of action proposed in connexion with a development which has arisen in the United Nations.

  1. On 20 December you approved recommendations relating to our future policy towards the territory. In brief the two key points of the submission1 (with which you concurred) were that we should henceforth place more emphasis in our future policy on self-determination, but that we should also take a step backwards from involvement in the problem of P. Timor lest we become more enmeshed in it than need be. On 14 January you wrote to the Prime Minister and the Minister for Defence enclosing copies of our submission and in effect seeking their endorsement of it as well.2 There have been earlier indications that the thrust of our submission accorded with the Prime Minister's own thinking on P. Timor.

Recent Developments

  1. It was noted in the earlier submission that the positions of the pro-independence FRETILIN Party and the more conservative UDT were in reality not far apart. FRETILIN wanted independence 'soon'; UDT looked forward to a period of preparation before 'eventual independence'. In the event, a dialogue between the two groups culminated on 22 January in the publication of a joint communique setting out 'common policies' between the two parties. These are: total independence; rejection of integration with Indonesia; establishment of a 'transitional government' comprising solely FRETILIN and UDT; and a call for a United Nations supervisory committee to oversee the decolonisation process. The communique states that the 'great powers of Asia and others under the influence of Indonesia, including Australia' should be automatically disqualified from participation in the UN Committee.
  2. No indication is given as to when FRETILIN and UDT might hope to achieve their now common aim of independence. More disturbing is the suggestion which emerges from the communique that FRETILIN and UDT may have in mind a solution for P. Timor that would bypass the need for an act of self-determination. There are shades of a 'Mozambique solution' in the references to the establishment of a transitional government composed solely of persons appointed by FRETILIN and UDT. You will also recall that Ramos Horta told officials in Canberra in December that he saw no need for an election or plebiscite: FRETILIN's goal of independence was supported by the people and that was that.
  3. We have already been told by the Indonesians that they regard the terms of the alliance between UDT and FRETILIN as 'provocatively anti-Indonesian'. Like us, they seem to have concluded that Portugal might follow the pattern of decolonisation established in Africa, handing over, without recourse to self-determination, to the pro-independence groups. They have said this would be a 'worrying development', and indeed implied that it would be unacceptable. Our Charge d'Affaires in Jakarta senses a toughening of Indonesia's attitude towards P. Timor, the development of a frame of mind 'which could favour direct intervention in P. Timor'.3
  4. The idea that an independent P. Timor would create an intolerable threat to Indonesia's security is deeply engraved on the Indonesian psyche and will not be easily shaken. We have received more evidence in this connexion that contingency planning for a possible Indonesian military operation against P. Timor continues. Your attention is invited to the attached item extracted from the JIO Daily Bulletin dated 6 February. While it cannot be concluded from this that an actual military operation is imminent-putatively the stress continues to be on the defensive character of much of the contingency planning-the Indonesians are clearly keeping the military option open.
  5. The Australian Government's commitment to a separate act of self-determination was emphasised in discussions with Dr Almeida Santos last October; the point was repeated to Ramos Horta in December in the context of his own suggestion that a Mozambique formula would suffice. In view of recent developments, however, we have felt that the point should be underscored again with the Portuguese. This was done in a call our Ambassador paid on Dr Santos on 4 February.4 On instructions, Mr Cooper invited Dr Santos' attention to the risk involved in any strategy of decolonisation that effectively handed over power to UDT/ FRETILIN without an act of self-determination. He suggested that such a course could be regarded as a direct challenge to Indonesia, providing a pretext for Indonesian intervention.
  6. Santos indicated that he was alive to the dangers vis-a-vis the Indonesians. But he also maintained that Lisbon's role was to co-operate with UDT and FRETILIN (and not to worry too much about the pro-Indonesian APODETI which Santos dismissed as being without any local support and as likely to 'disappear'). Moreover, while Santos continues to speak of a 'period of some years' before independence, and although he confirmed that an act of self-determination would be essential at some stage, we have to recognise that recent developments in Timor have probably generated a momentum of their own in favour of earlier, rather than later, independence.
  7. More to the point, our Embassy in Lisbon has gained the impression that Santos, and the other civilian ministers, may be lagging behind the thinking of the Armed Forces Movement in Portugal, which our Embassy believes would like to speed up the decolonisation process. Our Embassy has come to this view on the basis of discussions with its own military contacts in Lisbon.5 Any drift to the extreme left there could well accelerate pressures on the Lisbon Government to divest itself of its remaining colonial responsibilities.
  8. Internal Portuguese political developments are also clearly at the forefront of Indonesian concern.

Proposals Advanced by Dr Santos

  1. During our Ambassador's call on Santos, the Portuguese Minister told Mr Cooper that he recognised the need for close co-operation between Lisbon, Canberra and Jakarta on the Timor question. He outlined his 'proposed solution' for Portuguese Timor. He envisages a period of some years during which Lisbon would retain ultimate responsibility for P. Timor, but would co-operate closely with UDT and FRETILIN (but not APODETI). At the same time, Australia and Indonesia would be invited to participate in a joint economic aid program to ensure P. Timor's viability. ('Portugal could not afford to do this alone'.) Eventually when circumstances permitted-he referred to later this year or next-there would be an act of self-determination. Santos' own preference was for the election of a constituent assembly, rather than a referendum.
  2. As a first step, Santos saw a need for a 'secret tripartite meeting' between representatives of the Portuguese, Indonesian and Australian Governments to discuss his proposals. He said that such a meeting should take place in Europe; a meeting in the Timor area would be 'impossible to keep secret'. Following the tripartite meeting the proposals would be canvassed with UDT/FRETILIN (but again not with APODETI).
  3. Santos was not put off by our Ambassador's observation that UDT/FRETILIN opposition to the inclusion of Indonesia and Australia in any UN supervisory role in P. Timor could suggest that they would equally oppose our participation in Santos' plan. Santos responded that he did not anticipate any difficulty in convincing both groups that independence without the willing co-operation of Indonesia would be illusory. But it was 'also important to associate Australia with the plan'.
  4. Santos has since discussed his ideas within the Portuguese Decolonisation Commission (consisting of the President, Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and himself) which has apparently approved them. On 6 February he called in Mr Cooper to suggest that the proposed 'secret meeting' should take place in London on either 12, 13 or 14 February, while adding that 'he was, of course, flexible as to time and place'.6 Mr Cooper was asked to let him have our reactions in the next few days. Santos did not say whether he had also advanced the proposal to the Indonesians, but we suspect that he is awaiting the Australian reaction first.

The Australian Interest

  1. We, of course, must welcome Santos' willingness to consult us and invite our views. But we are unattracted by the idea of a three-party conclave, secret or otherwise. What Santos proposes would risk drawing us more deeply into the problems of P. Timor than we should like. His proposal runs counter to the theme of non-involvement which you endorsed in our earlier submission. It is for Portugal itself to bring about acceptable decolonisation in Timor in association with the Timorese themselves. This is not a responsibility which the Portuguese can shrug off or ask others to share.
  2. For the same reasons we are concerned at the notion that has apparently caught hold in Lisbon that we and the Indonesians might be willing to share the burden with Portugal for Timor's economic viability. It is true that during the visit of Dr Santos last October he raised the question of Australian economic and technical help, and was encouraged by the Prime Minister to think of a possible trilateral aid program involving Portugal, Australia and Indonesia (and perhaps some other ASEAN countries).7 But no commitments were made and the Prime Minister was probably thinking of something much more modest than evidently Dr Santos now has in mind.
  3. You, yourself, were cautious in responding to Ramos Horta's overtures about Australian aid when you received him on 11 December. You said that we could not give money or budgetary support, but would be willing to consider some technical training. You later commented, 'I suppose so', on the proposal in our submission of 13 December that we should provide aid to P. Timor under a trilateral umbrella.8 The Aid Agency is unenthusiastic about a substantial aid program for P. Timor.
  4. As against all this, there is, as already noted, no guarantee that Portugal will not simply give up in P. Timor, the more so because Australia offers it no encouragement to stay on. This possibility confronts us with a policy dilemma-a need to trade off the advantages, immediate as well as long-term, of maintaining a discreet distance from the P. Timor conundrum, against the risk that we may thereby be missing an opportunity to influence events in P. Timor in a way that might help forestall problems later on. This ground was covered in detail in our earlier submission. We have examined the new situation and conclude, on balance, and again subject to continuing review, that we should still be best advised to avoid entanglement.
  5. The one caveat we would enter relates to aid. The financial burden of P. Timor apparently weighs heavily in Lisbon, and the extent to which we and the Indonesians may be willing to help could be a significant factor in influencing Portuguese policy. The political potential provided by economic aid for building for the future in a probably independent P. Timor should also not be overlooked. While there could be no question of our taking on a substantial proportion of present Portuguese expenditure, we may need to contemplate something more than token aid and indeed we should not regard an annual Australian contribution of $1 to $2 million as excessive in the circumstances. We would of course need to explore the modalities and practicalities with the Aid Agency.
  6. As noted, we are uncertain whether the Portuguese have canvassed their secret meeting proposal with Indonesia. On 31 January the Indonesians were expressing concern to our Embassy in Jakarta that Portugal seemed to be proceeding with the decolonisation of P. Timor without keeping Indonesia informed as Santos had promised when he visited Jakarta in 1974. The Indonesians do not share our own caution about 'involvement' and indeed would more than welcome any opportunity to shoulder some of the responsibility for determining with the Portuguese the nature and rate of change in the territory. Accordingly, we believe that the Portuguese should be encouraged to expose their thinking to the Indonesians and even to accept Indonesia as a party principal, so to speak, to the problems posed by P. Timor. While we should also wish to maintain contact, the Australian role might be better understood as that of an observer. By keeping in touch with both the Indonesians and Portuguese, but separately, we should be able to help iron out misunderstandings, to keep before all the parties our view on the need for an act of self-determination, and also, since this is still the most likely possibility, continue to try to bring the Indonesians to recognise that an independent P. Timor need not be the end of the world. At the same time, by remaining on the sidelines, we minimise the risk of entangling Australia.
  7. As stated, Santos has asked for our reactions to his proposal. We have prepared the attached draft reply to Lisbon.

United Nations' Interest

  1. There is one further matter on which we should appreciate guidance. UDT/FRETILIN have now cabled the UN, canvassing their idea for the establishment of a UN Supervisory Committee for P. Timor, and repeating their view that the great powers, Australia, Indonesia and also, now, the other ASEAN countries, have disqualified themselves from membership. The Secretary of the Committee of Twenty-Four has sought our Mission's views and those of [the] Indonesia[n]s on whether the text should be circulated. In response, the Indonesian Permanent Representative has sought to discourage the Secretariat and we understand that the Secretariat is inclined to accept Indonesia's advice. Our Mission in New York has also gone along with the Indonesians. However, the question arises whether we should allow ourselves to get into a position where we could be accused-by domestic critics as well as others-of trying to block the circulation in New York of an appeal lodged by legitimate petitioners. We believe it would accord more with Government policy for our Mission to inform the Secretariat that, so far as Australia is concerned, we should have 'no objection' to the circulation of the text.


  1. It is recommended that:
    1. you approve the text of the proposed outward telegram to Lisbon;
    2. you endorse the course of action in the United Nations proposed in paragraph 22 above.


Acting First Assistant Secretary

South-East Asia and PNG Division

[NAA: All443. [14])