118 Brief for Whitlam

Canberra, 31 March 1975


Australian Policy: Background and Recent Developments

We need to be wary of becoming too deeply enmeshed in the Timor problem. You are already on record as saying that henceforth social and political conflicts in Asia should be allowed to work themselves out without intervention by outside powers, even if the contest for power and change leads to violence. While speaking against the background of the Viet-Nam experience, your statement was meant to have general application in South East Asia.

Australia's interest in Portuguese Timor

  1. A separate paper has been prepared by the Department of Defence on the strategic significance of Portuguese Timor. Timor, along with Brunei, constitutes the remaining colonial problem in South East Asia. Although Australia has a natural interest in the final outcome and the Government supports self-determination in the territory, it is a long way from this point to accepting any overall responsibility for Timor. That responsibility rests primarily with Portugal and the Timorese, with Indonesia occupying the next place because of its predominant interest. Australia should not be a party principal. Its role should be to help the other countries and parties concerned to work together.
  2. At the same time, however, we have to bear in mind the danger that Indonesian policy towards Portuguese Timor may jeopardise our present relations with Indonesia. The Minister for Defence has invited your attention to the risk that an Indonesian military intervention in Portuguese Timor would endanger our program of defence cooperation with Indonesia and he has also pointed to the danger of wider repercussions for our relations with Indonesia and indeed for the strategic concepts on which our defence and foreign policies are based.
  3. There are domestic pressures at work which may deeply affect our policies towards Portuguese Timor. These pressures come from both sides of the political spectrum. Mr Peacock initiated the urgency debate in the House on 25 February. The Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee of Caucus has discussed Timor on several occasions; a group from the Committee recently visited Timor. A trade union and student group, led by Mr Jim Roulston, has also recently returned from Timor. Ministerial correspondence on the subject is increasing; it invariably calls on the Government to adopt a robust stand with Indonesia over Timor. Another strand of opinion has stressed the special obligation we have to the Timorese because of the help extended to the Australian 'Sparrow Force' during the war. In all of this there are strong undertones of anti-Indonesian sentiment.
  4. In the last few weeks too the Australian press has descended on Timor; its reporting has occasionally been tendentious and it has overdrawn the Indonesian threat. Of some relevance is the remark by the Governor of Portuguese Timor to Mr Woolcott that reporting of some Australian journalists has been irresponsible; Governor Pires mentioned Stannard of the Australian and Scully of the ABC.
  5. Public comment and activity in Australia have not gone unnoticed in Indonesia. We have had reflections of irritation from Harry Tjan, General Yoga Sugama (Chief of BAKIN), as well as from President Soeharto himself when in his discussion with Mr Woolcott on 8 March he spoke of the 'over-reaction in Australia to inaccurate press reports'. General Yoga also spoke to Mr Woolcott on 17 March. He referred to a 'change in public attitudes in Australia towards Indonesia' and speculated that this reflected the Australian media's approach to the Timor issue as well as the attitude of groups like Amnesty International. He expressed concern about the visit of the six ALP members to Timor and hoped that they would not confine their fact-finding to contacts with FRETILIN. (In fact, they had wide-ranging contacts, including APODETI.)1
  6. Much of the Australian interest and 'involvement' has been stimulated by the FRETILIN group in Timor. Ramos Horta is anxious to draw Australia in as a counter to the threat he perceives from Indonesia. Australian press and public comment is being played up in Timor as evidence of Australian support for FRETILIN's cause. Horta continues to correspond with groups with which he made contact during his earlier visits to Australia.
  7. Australian policy to date has been to avoid this involvement so far as possible. In particular, we have felt that we cannot permit our relations with Indonesia to become the hostage of Ramos Horta and his UDT-FRETILIN group. But domestic political factors may be nudging us further into the Timor quagmire. Departmentally, we hope that these pressures can continue to be resisted. Mr Woolcott has also recommended from Jakarta that some measure of Australian disengagement would best serve our interests.

[matter omitted]2

  1. But one should guard against optimism. There are still many loose ends in the Portuguese plans for Timor and uncertainties about the attitudes of UDT and FRETILIN, and indeed of Indonesia. While UDT-FRETILIN appear to accept a fairly protracted transitional period before independence is attained, the coalition also clearly envisages a progressive transfer of power in that period to a government firmly reflecting political forces in Timor. They may not take kindly to the notion of a consultative council. It is clear too that ultimate integration remains a firm policy objective of the Indonesian Government. The Indonesians see integration as being accomplished through an Indonesian influenced act of self-determination and they believe (probably inaccurately) that they have won Portugal's agreement to facilitate Indonesian covert efforts to this end. But all the indications are that at least in present circumstances an act of self-determination would favour the pro-independence parties and not APODETI, no matter how much covert Indonesian involvement. Another uncertainty derives from the conflicting statements of the Indonesians and Portuguese. The Governor of Portuguese Timor was reported on 20 March as still speaking of an election for a constituent assembly 'within the year'. How does this fit in with what emerged from the London talks? Recent advice from Harry Tjan3 also conflicts with what General Yoga told Mr Woolcott about encouraging APODETI to participate in discussions with the other political parties and with the Portuguese.
  2. Beyond all this, that measure of agreement which was reached in London between the Indonesians and the Portuguese is uncertain. It would seem still to fall far short of what the Indonesians really want-a privileged place for APODETI and an agreement by Portugal to influence the Timorese in the direction of integration with Indonesia. Harry Tjan confirmed to our Embassy on 19 March that Indonesian and Portuguese positions were still 'far apart'. He complained that, while the Portuguese maintained that the best solution was integration with Indonesia, they would not work to that end.
  3. Another uncertainty is that the discussions with the Portuguese took place before the attempted coup in Portugal on March 11 and the subsequent shift to the left there. An up-to-date assessment of the Portuguese situation is being prepared separately. But it is clear that Indonesia's anxieties about Communist influence in Portugal will be heightened.
  4. The events in Portugal must also raise the question of whether future governments in Lisbon will be prepared to follow the program of gradual decolonisation and cooperation with Indonesia in Timor worked up primarily by Dr Santos. That Santos continues in the new Portuguese Cabinet is a hopeful sign. That many of the key figures of the new government, including the President, Prime Minister and the new Foreign Minister, have also been members of the Decolonisation Committee is another. They would presumably have approved Santos' brief for the London talks. It is also relevant that the Portuguese delegation at the talks included Major Vitor Alves, a leading member of the Armed Forces Movement in Lisbon and a member of the new Portuguese Revolutionary Council. Our Embassy in Lisbon believes that the advent of the new Portuguese Government will not result in any policy changes in relation to Timor. [matter omitted]4

Assessment of Indonesian position

  1. Where does the foregoing leave us? As long as Portuguese Timor remains quiet, no firm evidence of Communist subversion emerges, and groups there do not allow themselves to be used by dissident groups from Indonesia itself, the Indonesian Government is likely not to take precipitate action in the territory, but concentrate on developing its influence there. President Soeharto is cautious and pragmatic. He prides himself on Indonesia's responsible foreign policy and will search for a solution to the Timor problem consistent with it. In time, provided there are no untoward developments in the territory, the Indonesians might come to accept the idea of an independent Timor and modify their policy objective accordingly. But there are certainly no signs that they have done so yet. In the final analysis, Indonesia's decision will be based on how it sees its national interest and on the extent to which it perceives Portuguese Timor as a threat to its security.

An Alternative Approach for Indonesia

  1. In your message to President Soeharto, you suggested that there were other means by which Indonesia could contain the threats which they see arising in respect of Timor. Indonesia's present course is driving the emerging nationalist forces in Timor into increasingly intransigent, anti-Indonesia positions. By rigidly opposing independence, the Indonesians are attracting the opposition of the currently dominant forces in the developing political life in Timor. There is the clear risk that the more extreme the position Indonesia takes, the more extreme will be the opposition engendered. This would indeed open up a prospect of instability in the territory, and friction and instability between Indonesia and any independent state that may emerge. It adds to the risk of external attention and involvement.
  2. If, instead, the Indonesians were to try to build friendly and influential relations with the Timorese, and if they were at pains to avoid stimulating the fears that UDT-FRETILIN no doubt hold about Indonesian intentions, it would seem to us that developments in Portuguese Timor would be less likely to threaten regional stability. We should urge on the Indonesians this alternative approach.

[matter omitted]5

[NAA: Al838, 3038/10/1/2, i]