94 Minute to Tange, Rowland and Woolcott

Canberra, 24 February 1975


Draft Letter to President Suharto

This is a very strong letter. A main theme of the letter, if not the predominant one, is the prospect of Indonesian direct military action against Portuguese Timor. Page 4 and half of page 5 is devoted to this. It is picked up again in the conclusion where it is made quite clear that it is our 'immediate concern' and cause of our 'apprehension'. Indeed the letter ends on the note of our apprehensions.

  1. The letter warns the President of the Republic of Indonesia:-
    1. that resort by Indonesia to military force 'would make it extremely difficult for an Australian Government to maintain the close and substantial relationship which we have developed with Indonesia';
    2. that 'the damage to our relationship with Indonesia would be of the gravest concern to us';
    3. 'to speak plainly, military action against the territory would inevitably have serious consequences for our relations'.
  2. The letter is thus very strong. For an Australian Prime Minister to address the President of the Republic of Indonesia in language such as 'to speak plainly' goes beyond the customary forms of communication at this level, also having in mind President Suharto's great sense of dignity and pride in the position he holds. The letter is so strong that it could jeopardise the sense of understanding and will to work together that now characterises relationships between Australia and Indonesia; put at risk the special personal relationship between the Prime Minister and the President; and (if it got into the public domain) put in doubt the President's willingness to make his forthcoming visit to Australia.
  3. These considerations are, of course, self evident and will have been taken into account in the preparation and drafting of the letter. The questions, however, that I must put to you are whether the available intelligence warrants a letter of this nature at this stage.
  4. It is true that the letter contains a formal disclaimer by the Prime Minister as to the credence of the reports about military intervention, but the substance of this letter is based on giving them the greatest credence. It seems to me that such a letter would be warranted only if the Australian Government were satisfied in its mind that the Indonesians were on the verge of direct military intervention, and that the highest levels of authority in Indonesia-and that means the President himself-were almost if not wholly committed to this course in the early future. No other basis of reasoning and assessment would support so strong a letter.
  5. I myself am not prepared to subscribe to that assessment. The hard military intelligence we have, supported by the 'atmospherics' of other reporting, is that the Indonesian Armed Forces have put themselves in the position where they have the capability to mount a direct military operation against Portuguese Timor, once such an order is given, in about one or two weeks from the time of the order. We do not have the evidence to say that all the military activities which we have noted, such as exercises, have been planned and geared to this end. However, it would be prudent to assume that this has been the case. We also think, as a matter of opinion, that the Indonesian Armed Forces are not developing the capability merely on a contingency basis or for reasons of show of force. We believe they have been preparing a military option which they then have at their disposal for implementation dependent on their Government's decision in the light of the developing situation.
  6. At an earlier stage, some three months ago, we were of the opinion that President Suharto was resistant to the idea of resort to force and preferred other means of diplomatic and political manoeuvre. The other means not appearing to work, we could not say this today. It would now be prudent to assume, if he could not be satisfied with developments in other ways, that he would exercise the military option. We cannot evaluate the recent message from [US Government sources]1 that Indonesia is currently planning a military operation against Portuguese Timor to be launched at the latest by August 1975. As given to us it is an indicator not evidence of a Presidential decision.
  7. The advice that I have given to Departments is that the Indonesians do have the military capability, that at senior levels of Government they are contemplating the military option, but that there is no evidence of basic decisions having been taken concerning the resort to the military option or the timing. I have further advised that, in view of the developments in Portuguese Timor and the Indonesian reading of developments inside Portuguese Timor, events had overtaken the policy position developed between the Prime Minister and the President last year-and that, if the Australian Government wished to influence the Indonesians away from serious contemplation of the military option, then we should resume high level discussion about alternative possibilities and prospects (such as set out on page 6 of the draft letter). In my view, on the basis of the military evidence, the letter is too much addressed to the military concern.2



Joint Intelligence Organization

[NAA: A1838, 3038/10/1/7, i]