227 Record of Conversation Between Whitlam and Tang

Canberra, 12 September 1975


Decolonisation Subjects

[matter omitted]1

  1. Mr Tang then asked the Acting Minister in the context of decolonisation what were the latest developments in Portuguese Timor.
  2. Mr Whit/am replied that it was not easy to be sure of the situation there-but one thing that was clear was that Portugal, pre-occupied with Angola, wanted to relieve itself of its responsibilities in Timor. It had dropped its bundle. Timor was in fact, he added, in the middle of the Indonesian archipelago.
  3. The Acting Foreign Minister explained to Mr Tang that there were three parties in Portuguese Timor. The Portuguese-recruited soldiers had given arms to one party, the party that had succeeded in gaining control of the island (sic). The Portuguese administration had fled to a small island off Timor, which had become, Mr Whitlam commented, a mini-Taiwan. He added that it now looked as if the party that had started the fighting (UDT) would not be able to regain control. Mr Whitlam added that he suspected that the Indonesians were now providing arms for the other two parties. As long as arms were available, civil war would continue. Australia suspected that Portugal had wanted to embroil Australia in this situation, but Australia did not want any further colonial responsibilities, particularly at this time. Portugal had been very suspicious of and also very offensive to the Indonesians. The Indonesians had offered food supplies to Portuguese Timor, but the Portuguese had refused to accept them and had also rejected Indonesian attempts to evacuate refugees. Australia, said Mr Whitlam, as a member of the region could not condone Portugal's attempts to create the impression that Australians were the natural custodians of Portuguese Timor and that the Indonesians were not.
  4. The Indonesians, continued Mr Whitlam, were paranoiac about communism. The party which was winning militarily in Portuguese Timor, was Fretilin, which Australian conservative leaders had described as communist. This has excited the Indonesians.
  5. Mr Tang remarked that in fact Fretilin merely held some social-democratic ideas.
  6. The Acting Minister suggested that they were occasionally Marxist.
  7. Mr Tang said that Dr Santos had gone to the U.N. and requested the Secretary-General to set up a Committee of Good Offices to help Portugal solve the problem of Timor. The Committee was to comprise four member countries: Australia, Indonesia, Portugal and New Zealand. The Secretary-General, however, had said that he had no authority to do this, the decision had to come from a political body. The Decolonisation Committee's Chairman had said that there was no precedent for action of this kind. He suggested that a U.N. fact-finding Mission be sent to Portuguese Timor, a mission which did not include any members of the administering power. The Mission would have to be given assurances that it could go into the territory and investigate the situation without obstruction. Since this was impossible for Portugal to guarantee, said Mr Tang, Portugal had decided to involve Australia. The U.N. was willing to help in a humanitarian way, and to call a ceasefire. The Indonesians, however, were not interested. They felt insecure if there was anyone else in Portuguese Timor.
  8. Mr Whitlam commented that the Indonesians would be very suspicious if the Russians or the Chinese were in Portuguese Timor. He suggested that the best solution might be if some regional arrangement could be reached. The region needed a sort of 'Monroe Doctrine'.
  9. Mr Tang remarked that he himself was an international civil servant, but he could say that China had no interest in Portuguese Timor. He had heard from Soares when he was in Lisbon last January, that the Russians had asked the Portuguese for permission for Soviet ships to visit Portuguese Timor. The Portuguese had rejected the request.
  10. Mr Whitlam commented that Australia did not want to see the U.S. and U.S.S.R. compete against each other in the Indian Ocean.
  11. Mr Tang said that if the Indonesians were to intervene in Portuguese Timor, it would set an unfortunate precedent. It might tempt the four countries bordering on Angola to intervene there. Also Indonesian intervention would be much resented by the African members of the U.N. because of its implications for Angola.
  12. Mr Whitlam commented that Australia had behaved properly in PNG. But the Indonesians, after the meeting with the Portuguese in March, felt double-crossed.
  13. Mr Tang remarked that the Portuguese were no angels.

    [matter omitted]

  14. Mr Tang said that he was afraid that if the Indonesians intervened militarily in Portuguese Timor, some African countries would take it as a precedent and follow suit. It was in fact a dangerous precedent-to intervene in the affairs of a neighbouring country because you did not like the nature of its government.
  15. Mr Whitlam replied that until now Indonesia had been very strict about observing legal boundaries.
  16. Mr Tang said that if Indonesia were to intervene it would set a precedent which might in the future have implications for Papua New Guinea-which also had a common boundary with Indonesia.
  17. Mr Whitlam commented that if a regional arrangement were reached to solve the problem, PNG should also be included.
  18. Mr Tang concluded that he believed that the best solution was the U.N. position. The first priority was to reach a ceasefire, then negotiations could take place towards peace.2

[NAA: Al838, 303817/1, iii]