175 Submission to Willesee

Canberra, 21 August 1975


Portuguese Timor: 'Internationalisation'

Attached is a Departmental paper which examines the range of possible actions in the United Nations over Portuguese Timor.

  1. Our overall impression is that international interest in the territory is only marginal and that it is unlikely that there would be firm international censure of Indonesia in the event that it were to resort to military force or otherwise to seek to bring about the collapse of the Portuguese decolonisation program. Censure would be even less likely if Indonesia were to intervene in a situation of widespread disorder involving the breakdown of effective administration. There are, of course, many uncertainties and unknowns, and the direction which a United Nations debate might take is not easy to predict.
  2. The paper examines what might happen in the United Nations as a result of Indonesian military action or a breakdown in the Portuguese decolonisation program. In the event of a clear act of aggression, Indonesia might be very much on the defensive, but in the case of a breakdown in the decolonisation process or of the administration in Portuguese Timor it might be well placed to put its views quite effectively, even if the breakdown were partly contrived by it.
  3. There is also the possibility that Portugal, under pressure from Indonesia, might request the United Nations to lend its name to a program which amounted to an endorsement of Indonesia's interests in Timor in a West Irian style arrangement. Thus there would be a United Nations cover, perhaps involving the establishment (as in West Irian) of a United Nations Temporary Executive Authority, for a transfer of power to an Indonesia committed to allowing an act of self-determination (act of free choice). There is no doubt that this would produce a far easier United Nations debate than if Portugal felt obliged to take an initiative directed squarely against the sort of outcome sought by Indonesia. A degree of cooperation between Indonesia and Portugal to resolve the problem would be welcomed by most members of the international community.
  4. Another possibility, perhaps more remote, is that Indonesia, arguing that Portugal is discriminating against APODETI in the decolonisation process, would take the initiative. This could only happen in the event that the territory was on the point of being declared or becoming independent, and that the Indonesian Government had decided that it could not intervene. The United Nations might thus be a last resort for Indonesia. But this seems unlikely.
  5. In the paper, we discount the possibility of a United Nations initiative by another country, but it is not inconceivable that, perhaps even inadvertently, a 'third country' (perhaps African) might set off a substantial debate on Portuguese Timor which has already been the subject of some discussion in the Committee of Twenty-four. Such an initiative could be taken if it seemed that Portugal was avoiding UN action. We also do not pursue the question of international reaction in circumstances where the United Nations is simply not called into play, for instance, if Portugal simply allows Indonesian interference or military action to proceed, even to the point of an unopposed take-over. There might be expressions of objection from some fairly distant quarters but it is difficult to imagine more than very token international action outside the United Nations context. Governments disposed to reprimanding Indonesia would be less effective, and less enthusiastic, than if the United Nations were involved. Indonesia, of course, will be carrying out its own assessment of possible reactions, including Australian and United States (especially Congressional) attitudes.

    Portuguese position

  6. If the Portuguese were to go all out against the Indonesians they might be able to rally support from a number of quarters. They now have good credentials in Africa and might be able to coax or embarrass the East Europeans into supporting them. The Chinese (and Vietnamese) position could also be important.
  7. But the Portuguese might not decide to push very hard in New York. Having gone through the motions of drawing United Nations attention to Indonesian invasion or subversion, they may, in the end, be prepared to allow Indonesia to have the territory. The United Nations might thus be turned to as a little more than a gesture to enable Portuguese hands to be kept clean, even in the event of an outright invasion. A combination of domestic uncertainty, the Angola experience and a desire not to be seen making a fuss about a territory as small and internationally unknown as Timor, might be enough to persuade the Portuguese that a United Nations debate should be kept at low key.

    Indonesian attitudes

  8. Indonesian officials to whom we have spoken acknowledge that Indonesia could find the going difficult in the United Nations, but they believe that most of Indonesia's friends would at least remain silent and that Indonesia would be able to find its way through such traps as may be encountered in debates or resolutions. If the Indonesians were to decide to intervene in Timor they would be fully prepared to battle it out in New York. Some officials are almost scornful in their assessment of what the United Nations might do: 'they will talk, but we will have acted'. Indeed the Indonesians tend to take the view that countries which are well disposed towards Indonesia will not make a fuss, whilst most which are not can be disregarded. Indonesians may, of course, be miscalculating the strength of their international position. They might be hard pressed, if the going were to get rough, to find anyone to speak up for them in the United Nations. Their international standing is not as good as it should be: Indonesia's credentials with both the West and the non-aligned are slightly uncertain. And its Islamic ties are not as sound as they might be. The Indonesians would thus be relying essentially on a silent, embarrassed majority to pull them through.
  9. The Indonesians must take United Nations, and especially Third World, opinion into account, and this can be seen as a restraining influence on them. In the last resort, however, if the prospect of an independent East Timor looms as very imminent, or if there are widespread disorders in Timor with effective administration breaking down, Indonesia may be prepared to put its rather strong views on national and regional security before the possibility of adverse reaction in distant conference halls.


  10. The initiative for taking the matter to the UN rests clearly with Portugal, or with Portugal and Indonesia together,-not with Australia-and there may initially be scope at most for no more than a 'good offices' role for Australia to play in helping Portugal and Indonesia to establish the sort of understanding required to produce a satisfactory approach to a UN exercise. Once the matter, as a result of Portuguese or joint Portuguese-Indonesian initiative, has attracted UN attention, our policy will have to be determined in the light of the circumstances obtaining at the time, which it is not possible to predict. But our interest will be best served by our remaining as uninvolved in the United Nations as is compatible with domestic political factors and our international ties and responsibilities.


First Assistant Secretary

South-East Asia and PNG Division

[NAA: Al838, 303817/1, ii]