251 Cablegram to Jakarta

Canberra, 7 October 1975


Portuguese Timor

For Woolcott from Renouf

Thank you for the assessment in your telegram JA2248. 1 We will give it due weight in our consideration of future policy.

  1. There are, however, a number of points I want to make to you immediately. These are as follows.
  2. No doubt, as you say (paragraph 20 as well as paragraph 3) our attitude to Timor will to some degree affect our relations with countries in the region beyond Indonesia in the next few years. But our policy must also take account of principle as well as of the need for good relations with Indonesia. Nor can it be assumed that Indonesia's ASEAN partners will stick with her should the going become rough. You will have noted in this regard the support for FRETILIN offered by Mozambique and Guyana in the U.N. There are also indications of possible DRV interest.
  3. You are in my view too hard on Portugal. It amazes me, in fact, that Portugal has hung on so long in what is a thankless task. We may not agree with Portuguese apprehension but there is at least some reason for their fear that in 'restoring law and order' (which now exists in most of Timor) Indonesia might have treated, and still would treat, FRETILIN harshly.
  4. As you know, Ramos Horta has conceded that there are divisions within FRETILIN between what he claims to be the currently dominant conservative faction and the radicals. But FRETILIN seems to be united in opposing absorption of Portuguese Timor by Indonesia. So of course were the UDT leaders until their defeat at the hands of FRETILIN. But I wonder how much da Cruz and Carrascalao now count for inside Portuguese Timor.
  5. Nor is it necessarily accurate to believe that most of those who have crossed the border into Indonesian Timor actively oppose FRETILIN. As Rodgers found during his visit last week, the level of political consciousness among the refugees is low. I recognise, of course, that this consideration applies as well to those people left behind in Portuguese Timor. As you say, an illiterate rural community will tend to support those with the power-in this case FRETILIN. But the point I would make is that FRETILIN is clearly in control in Portuguese Timor and arguments to the contrary will simply appear to the world at large as a quibble.
  6. Unpalatable though it may be, Indonesia will have to allow for this fact in its own policy. Indonesia's moment for action was at the end of August when there would have been a reasonable degree of international understanding for a 'humanitarian intervention' designed to separate equally matched contestants and save the lives of innocent civilians. Indonesia hesitated, allowing FRETILIN itself to restore law and order under FRETILIN's exclusive control. Indonesian intervention in current circumstances would clearly have much less international support. The problem is compounded for Australia because of the keen interest of our public opinion in the outcome in Portuguese Timor and the certainty that as Indonesian involvement escalates, knowledge of it will become increasingly public, leading to domestic pressure for the Australian Government to dissociate itself from Indonesian policy in Timor.
  7. This brings me to your paragraph 12.2 While good relations with Indonesia are clearly of the utmost importance-a fact which is categorically reaffirmed in the latest strategic basis paper3 —I do not believe that what the Prime Minister told President Soeharto in Townsville was meant to convey a carte blanche to Indonesia in relation to Timor. The Government has never accepted Indonesian claims that an independent Portuguese Timor could pose a threat to Indonesia. In addition, the element of self determination, not necessarily a one-man-one-vote plebiscite or election, but at least some form of popular consultation, has also remained an important plank in Australian policy and was also conveyed to President Soeharto in Townsville.
  8. If this question goes to the U.N., it will be most difficult for us to be 'inactive' although, of course, we [s]hould try to adopt a moderate posture and avoid any trenchant criticism of Indonesia.
  9. The public guidance you suggest in your para 13 will not convince anyone here. It is better to leave this kind of activity to the Department. Also, Indonesia has some share of responsibility for the breakdown of decolonization.
  10. In general, I have the feeling our policy is being overtaken by events. Between them Portugal and Indonesia have made a mess of things. The question which Ministers may soon have to consider is whether we sit tight and allow the mess to drift on getting more messy or do we change course and if so, how? In considering the matter, Ministers will have to decide on one main aspect, among others, that is, whether the Government can contain the criticism here likely to mount up from the maintenance of present policy if it is to be maintained.

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