209 Record of Conversation Between Feakes and Matias

Canberra, 3 September 1975


Portuguese Timor

Mr Feakes thanked the Ambassador for coming into the Department at short notice. He wanted to tell the Ambassador that the Australian authorities [were] unhappy with current Portuguese policies on Portuguese Timor, as we understood them following on Dr Santos' visit to Canberra. Mr Feakes said that what he was going to say reflected attitudes of Australian ministers. Australia was worried that Portuguese policies seemed to be evolving in a way as to cast on countries other than Portugal the responsibility for any future Indonesian intervention in Portuguese Timor that might occur. To all intents and purposes, Portugal had abandoned her practical responsibilities in Portuguese Timor, including, for example, the responsibility for giving effect to the Macao program, which Australia had welcomed. Despite Portugal's apparent lack of will to take responsibility for Timor, Dr Santos was intent on conducting negotiations in Timor. What was the objective of these negotiations? Even if there were a useful outcome, who would guarantee it? Australia doubted whether Portugal had the will or the capability of reasserting her authority in Timor. Would Portuguese Timor become another Angola?

  1. Mr Feakes said that Portugal's policies on Timor appeared not to be taking sufficient account of regional sensitivities and interests. Australia believed that if, in the long run, Indonesia were to intervene in any way in Portuguese Timor, it was important that this intervention occur in as internationally acceptable a manner as possible. The thrust of current Portuguese policies as seen from Canberra was to comer Indonesia and to provoke her into making the sort of unilateral intervention in Portuguese Timor which was likely to be most unacceptable to the international community. Portugal seemed intent on maximising regional tensions over Portuguese Timor.
  2. Mr Feakes said that Australia had done everything it could, within policy limits, to assist the Portuguese in evacuating people from Timor and to facilitate the Santos mission. Australia would continue to be helpful. But so far Portugal seemed to have done little in return to take account of Australian and regional sensitivities in relation to Portuguese Timor.
  3. Mr Feakes recalled that Dr Santos had told the Acting Minister that, if it proved impossible for Portugal and Indonesia to reach agreement over Portuguese Timor, the whole matter would be referred to the United Nations. Australia was most anxious that Portugal should not refer the question of Portuguese Timor to the United Nations in a way which was critical of or an embarrassment to the Indonesians. It was to be hoped that Portugal would consult Indonesia on how the United Nations should become involved.
  4. Mr Feakes asked the Ambassador to report Australia's concern and interests to the Portuguese Government. Mr Cooper in Lisbon would be informed of current Australian uneasiness over Portuguese policies.
  5. Ambassador Matias said he would report all this to his Government. The Ambassador felt, however, that in Canberra people were looking at Lisbon unrealistically. Lisbon itself was undergoing a revolution and the situation there was very fluid. There was also the problem of the varying influences of the civil and the military in Portugal. What Mr Feakes had said would be more understandable to professional diplomats and civilian policy-makers. The military, however, would be less receptive to such representations. This civilian-military problem was exemplified in the different approaches of Dr Santos, a civilian lawyer, and Brigadier Rodriguez, and Governor Pires [who] had cabled Lisbon querying the authority of Dr Santos. Apparently Brigadier Rodriguez and Governor Pires were prepared to invite the Indonesians into Timor in some way. The reply came back from Lisbon that Dr Santos was bearing instructions from the President that under no circumstances were the Indonesians to be formally invited to intervene in Portuguese Timor.
  6. Mr Feakes reiterated that the Australian Government's basic concern was that the thrust of Portuguese policies seemed to be to force Indonesia into intervening unilaterally in Portuguese Timor.
  7. Ambassador Matias drew Mr Feakes' attention to Portuguese attitudes to Indonesia. It was hard for the current leadership in Lisbon to forget that probably as many as 300,000 people had been killed under the Indonesian Government in 1965-66 during its reaction to the attempted Communist coup. Lisbon feared that if the Indonesians were to intervene in Portuguese Timor, many Timorese would die.1 Both FRETILIN and UDT leaders and supporters would have to leave or face the risk of being killed. Portugal was looking for a regional power to fill the power vacuum in Portuguese Timor. The only countries in the area which Portugal regard[ed] as world powers were Australia, Japan and possibly China. Indonesia did not rate. The problem for Portugal was that Australia was unwilling to play any significant role in Timor.
  8. Mr Feakes pointed out to the Ambassador that the Indonesian Government had, in the main, not been responsible for the deaths that occurred after the 1965 attempted communist coup in Indonesia. Traditional differences and rivalries were a major contributing factor. Nor did Australia agree with Portugal that Indonesia 'did not rate' in the context which the Ambassador mentioned. Australia's view was that Indonesia was a power and that Indonesia would ultimately play a major role in filling the power vacuum in Portuguese Timor in one way or another. It was in Portugal's and everyone else's interests to ensure that Indonesian involvement in Timor was not unilateral and without guarantees. Accordingly, Australia had attached considerable importance to discussions and agreement between the Indonesians and the Portuguese. Australia would not take on a colonial role in Portuguese Timor.
  9. The Ambassador reiterated that Lisbon had great difficulties with the Indonesians. The latter had made a serious error in preventing Major Soares, the President's own emissary, from travelling to Dili via Indonesia. The Portuguese doubted Indonesia's good faith.
  10. Mr Feakes said that Australia too had been disappointed by the way Indonesia had treated Major Soares. The question of Portuguese Timor was, however, too important to be irrevocably influenced by what may have merely been a misunderstanding. Mr Feakes asked how the Ambassador saw the situation developing in Portuguese Timor.
  11. The Ambassador said that the recent events in Portuguese Timor had resulted from a series of errors on Lisbon's part. The decolonisation process was begun too quickly. Too little attention had [been] paid to political education and economic development. Two divisions of troops had been withdrawn and not replaced, thus leaving a power vacuum. The way ahead was very uncertain. Dr Santos might succeed in achieving some sort of agreement between the FRETILIN and UDT, thereby providing the breathing space everyone needed to work out future courses of action. If Dr Santos did not succeed, it was clear that Lisbon would not formally invite the Indonesians to intervene. Referral of the question to the United Nations seemed unlikely in view of Lisbon's disillusionment with inaction so far on the part of international organisations, especially the UN. The Ambassador could not yet see any way out of the impasse.
  12. Mr Feakes concluded by saying that Australia appreciated that Portugal's own national interests would largely determine her manner of acting in Timor. Australia was asking, however, that Portugal take very serious account of Australian and regional interests and sensitivities in relation to the Timor question.2

[NAA: A10463, 801/13/11/1, xiii]