98 Letter from Whitlam to Soeharto

Canberra, 28 February 1975


Your Excellency,

The arrival of our new Ambassador in Jakarta offers me the opportunity to convey to you my warm personal greetings and good wishes. Following on our agreement last September to meet again, and on subsequent exchanges between our officials about the timing of such a meeting, I should also like now to propose to you a date for the visit which we then agreed you should make to Australia. We should be very happy to welcome you in the first week of April, if that were convenient to you. From my point of view 4 to 7 April would be best. I realise that these dates are not far ahead, and I regret that the heavy demands on your time and on mine make forward planning difficult, but I very much hope that this time will be agreeable to you.

There are, I am sure you will agree, many subjects on which we should find personal discussion useful and timely. One of them is the future of Portuguese Timor-a subject which, as a result of various press reports, has lately been much in the news in this country, in a manner, I may say, which I should not have wished.

In September you explained to me your concern about the future of Portuguese Timor and Indonesia's important national interest in the security and stability of that territory and in its close association with your country. I fully understand your concern and interest. You expressed the belief that Portuguese Timor, poor and weak as it is, could become a source of instability and an attraction for other powers and political interests unfavourable to Indonesia. We agreed that the solution which we preferred was that the territory should become part of Indonesia, but that this outcome would need to result from the properly expressed wishes of its people. Both of us recognised the importance of self-determination in Portuguese Timor, a principle which both our governments have strongly supported in the United Nations and elsewhere.

Developments in the territory over the last months have been more rapid than we had expected, and the direction in which they seem to be leading the territory is towards eventual independence. In this situation, I should like to offer some suggestions which you may find helpful in your own deliberations.

In looking at the situation in Portuguese Timor, we both recognise the risk that possible political developments in Portugal itself might have unfavourable repercussions in Portuguese Timor. But our own current assessment in Australia is that the drift in Portugal seems to have been arrested, at least temporarily: the elections scheduled for April are to proceed, with the Portuguese Armed Forces Movement apparently overruling the opposition of the Communist Party.

Second, as we agreed in September, there is likewise always a risk of interference in Portuguese Timor by external powers. In Australia, however, we know of no evidence to support anxiety on this score at present: we have the impression that there is little interest in Portuguese Timor on the part of China or the Soviet Union, or indeed of other great powers; and our judgment is that those powers which might be tempted to meddle there would hesitate to jeopardise their relations with Indonesia, with the other countries of South-East Asia, or with Australia and Papua New Guinea, by doing so.

I feel, therefore, that the dangers we discussed in September need not now be seen as immediately pressing.

In this connexion I should like to refer again to the recent public debate here about Portuguese Timor. It was, as I have said, precipitated by newspaper reports about the possibility of some Indonesian military action against Portuguese Timor. I should say that I was very gratified to know of the denials of these reports issued by your Defence and Foreign Ministries, and also to have confirmation of these denials from your Ambassador.

The public debate does, however, serve to indicate the delicacy of the question, the widespread support here for an internationally acceptable act of self-determination in Portuguese Timor, and the great sensitivity of Australian Parliamentary and public opinion to any suggestion of a possible resort to unilateral action. I should like, if I may, to impress this sensitivity upon you. I am sure you will understand that no Australian Government could allow it to be thought, whether beforehand or afterwards, that it supported such action. A primary concern of any Australian Government, and certainly of my own, is the preservation and promotion of the close and mutually advantageous relationship between our two countries which has been and will remain so important to succeeding Governments in this country. Any damage to that relationship, or any action or statement that could disturb it or evoke public controversy and criticism of our closest neighbour, would distress us very greatly.

I am hopeful, however, that, as events are developing, there should be time and opportunity for a political solution to be found which will meet not only the proper aspirations of the people of Portuguese Timor, but also the important interests of Indonesia and those of Australia and the region in general. I think that a new approach could be adopted which would avoid the various dangers of which we are both so much aware, and that there should be time to explore and develop it.

In this connexion, we now have some new information from the Portuguese authorities- which indeed you may already have heard from the Portuguese themselves. It is to the effect that, although various reports have attributed to the UDT and FRETILIN a call for immediate de jure independence, the two parties have, on the contrary, proposed to Portugal a program for constitutional progress extending over a period of eight years, during which power would be progressively transferred to a transitional government and elections would be held for a constituent assembly.

We also understand from the Portuguese authorities that the two parties propose a policy of non-alignment and a pact of non-aggression and co-operation with Indonesia, providing for the maintenance of peace and good neighbourliness, non-interference and co-operation in all fields and at all levels. For their part, the Portuguese tell us that they would be prepared to retain responsibility for the territory for a transitional period of this kind, though they would wish Indonesia and Australia to co-operate and to assist in Timor's economic development.

I believe that this information is significant in indicating both that the prospect of independence is not imminent in the eyes of either the Portuguese or the FRETILIN-UDT parties, and also that the Portuguese, at least as matters now stand, are prepared to maintain their responsibilities in the territory-as I believe we would wish them to do.

The UDT-FRETILIN proposals could offer, I suggest, a promising basis for close co-operative arrangements between Portuguese Timor and Indonesia and one which, in time, could no doubt be developed or modified. Immediately, however, it would seem to call for active efforts on the part of Indonesia, in particular, to establish co-operation with Portugal and friendly relations with the political leaders in Portuguese Timor, which could influence their outlook. We should be ready to give whatever help we could in this.

Should you perceive the same possibilities as I do in this approach, I should be happy for such consultations as you might wish between our two Governments. Our Ambassador is ready to take part in discussions. I can assure you that, whatever solution may be found, Indonesia's interests will certainly continue to weigh very heavily in our own thinking.

I have written to you at some length, Your Excellency, because I feel that the depth and importance of the relationship between our two countries is such that I owe it to you to expose our views fully. I hope that you will see value in the approach to Portuguese Timor which I describe, and will agree with me that it could offer to our two countries the opportunity to develop a further area of close and useful co-operation.1

Yours sincerely


[NAA: Al0463, 801/13/ll/1, vii]