190 Cablegram to Jakarta

Canberra, 26 August 1975


Portuguese Timor

For Woolcott only/Jakarta; For Minister only/Lima

Following is record of conversation between Prime Minister and Indonesian Ambassador on 26August:-


[matter omitted]1

  1. The Prime Minister then referred to the two Portuguese officers who had recently arrived in Darwin in connection with the arrival of refugees from Portuguese Timor and he mentioned that we had been given to understand that they were also concerned to explore the possibility of negotiating a settlement between the contending parties in Portuguese Timor. It was possible that they might form part of a delegation led by the former Portuguese Minister for Inter-territorial Coordination, Dr Santos, who, it had been reported, was expected to come to Australia with a view to negotiating with the Timorese parties. The two Portuguese officers, the Prime Minister said, had suggested that a RAAF aircraft fly them to the island of Atauro near Dili. The two officers seemed to be thinking in terms of making the island their base for contact with the Timorese. The Prime Minister said that the Australian authorities were prepared to consider requests of this type from the Portuguese in accordance with his reference in the statement he had made that afternoon that Australia would give all the practical help it could to the Portuguese in their efforts to mediate and bring an end to the fighting. The Australian authorities had not made a decision. They wished to keep the Indonesians informed of the trend of their thinking: Indonesian responsibility and pre-occupations in Portuguese Timor were of an order greater than those of Australia. The territory was after all in the middle of the Indonesian Archipelago. The Prime Minister repeated that we wished to keep the Indonesians informed, commenting that it was reasonable for us to help if there were a chance of bringing the UDT and FRETILIN together.
  2. The Prime Minister also said that, if Dr Santos did come here, as a number of reports we had received suggested, and asked for an Australian aircraft to take him to the island of Atauro, the Prime Minister thought that we should have to consider helping.
  3. The Prime Minister then mentioned that two Australian destroyers had arrived in Darwin at noon and were refuelling. This put them at about 24 hours' sailing time from Dili. We were most doubtful about having ships in the port of Dili in the present circumstances there. What would happen if the people on shore opened fire with mortars and small arms on the vessels? We should have to respond. Where would it stop? But on the other hand he had been thinking about the possibility of moving the destroyers from Darwin closer to Dili, so that, if necessary, they could more quickly participate in an evacuation. While there were problems and disadvantages in such a movement, Australian public opinion would expect that the Australian Government would be humanitarian and far-sighted enough to be able to get the destroyers to Dili in less than 24 hours if an emergency evacuation were to prove necessary. But we should be most reluctant indeed to take part in an emergency evacuation in circumstances which could lead to an exchange of fire. We should be careful to avoid any exacerbation of the fighting between UDT and FRETILIN. If there were any question of Australian participation in an emergency evacuation in circumstances like those now obtaining in Dili, we should want to be informed of the trend of Indonesian authorities thinking about it. The Prime Minister went on to emphasise that, if there were any requests from the Portuguese for Australian soldiers, we should not be able to agree. The Indonesian Ambassador mentioned that an Indonesian naval ship capable of taking off 300 to 400 evacuees was due in Dili tomorrow. It would take the evacuees to Kupang and there the decision would be made about their future destination.
  4. The Ambassador asked what the Australian attitude would be if, in response to a Portuguese request for Indonesia and Australia to participate.2 [Mr Whitlam replied that] Australia would certainly not want to involve Australian military forces in Portuguese Timor but that it was up to the Indonesian authorities to make up their own minds how they responded to the Portuguese. We would not be in a situation of seeking to exercise a veto on the Indonesian response.
  5. The Ambassador mentioned that the assurances that the President had given to the Prime Minister in Townsville still stood. The Prime Minister, in response, said that he admired President Soeharto's attachment to proper procedures and to the requirements of international propriety.


[NAA: Al0463, 801/13/11/1, xii]