257 Cablegram to Jakarta

Canberra, 13 October 1975


Portuguese Timor

We have carefully considered the proposal in your JA2336.1 While there are some attractions in the proposal, there are also, as you say, some obvious difficulties.

  1. For a start, the first of the premises in your paragraph 3 is not necessarily a valid one.2 The no is currently putting the finishing touches on an assessment of the military options open to Indonesia. This paper will be sent to you shortly. It supports the conclusion that Fretilin is in a strong position in East Timor and is unlikely to be easily dislodged.
  2. Current Indonesian tactics involving covert support for UDT andAPODETI forays across the border have failed to consolidate a distinctive area of Portuguese Timor under UDT-APODETI control. The foreshadowed introduction of greater numbers of Indonesian forces might well result in a seizure of the border area, but would leave Fretilin in control of the capital, the international airport and the major areas of population.3 A protracted war of attrition would probably ensue with no early prospect that Fretilin's forces (estimated by JIO at 2,000 regular troops backed by up to 12,000 reservists) would capitulate. Fretilin could face food and other shortages for the population under its control but the Timorese peasants, used to living at subsistence level, would survive.
  3. The foregoing leads to the conclusion that Fretilin control is an established fact throughout most of Portuguese Timor and that, short of overt Indonesian invasion with the introduction of major Indonesian forces, Fretilin will remain in control. If, as we understand their intentions, the Indonesians are not thinking in terms of introducing major forces into Portuguese Timor,4 it may be that rather than continuing with their present tactics they would be better served by seeking some agreement with Fretilin which might offer them hope of exerting predominant influence in Portuguese Timor.
  4. At the present stage an invitation to Indonesia (and Malaysia) to intervene would be (and would be seen to be) an invitation to unseat the authorities in de facto control of Portuguese Timor. We think that the moment when such intervention would have been acceptable internationally has passed. There is no longer a civil war actively in progress which could justify intervention. The Indonesian-supported action has certainly helped to create an impression of disorder and confusion around Batugade but it has not undermined Fretilin's claim to be in effective and orderly control throughout most of the territory.5
  5. As you know, in their talks in Canberra with Dr Santos on 1 September, Australian Ministers were not prepared to consider any proposal which implied the transfer to Australia of the responsibility for inviting Indonesian intervention in Portuguese Timor. We agree that that responsibility would be diluted were we simply a party to anASEAN-plus invitation. But as you observe in paragraph 5 of JA2336, some water has passed under the bridge in the last six weeks. Ministers may feel that it would simply not be acceptable in Australia for the Government to appear to connive at an Indonesian takeover in Portuguese Timor whether or not we were acting in step or jointly with the ASEAN countries.
  6. The fact that the invitation for Indonesian intervention might also impose restraints on the Indonesians and other conditions would be unlikely to make it acceptable to Australian public opinion. It would be clear to everyone that, once established in Portuguese Timor, Indonesia would be reluctant to give up her mandate until she could be assured that the process of decolonisation would proceed in such a way that integration became the only option. Some mechanism-like the previous proposal for a Joint Authority-might be established to which Indonesia could, in theory, be accountable. But in practice any such mechanism would be unlikely to function other than as a means of providing a cloak of respectability for an Indonesian takeover. Australian participation in such a mechanism could create acute problems in the future if we were thereby expected to become guarantors of Indonesia's future good behaviour. We need to guard against a situation in which in addressing immediate problems we build much larger ones for the future.
  7. As you say, our present thinking is still in terms of supporting talks between all parties, including, now, further Ministerial-level talks between the Portuguese and Indonesians. We also see the need to prepare for a debate in the United Nations, although as will be seen from our CH2760256 we do not regard U.N. action and support for talks as necessarily mutually exclusive. We have no exaggerated expectations of what any new round of talks might achieve. But nor are we wholly pessimistic. If it were to help improve the prospect of talks we might even now be prepared to put to Ministers the idea of offering an Australian venue-something which hitherto we have been reluctant to consider because of the reduced flexibility it could entail for our future policy options.
  8. We appreciate that none of this offers much encouragement for the ideas outlined in your JA2336. If a regional dimension (which we agree could have considerable advantages in approaching the problem of Portuguese Timor) were to be sought, we wonder whether it might be achieved, at least after the event, by reviving the kind of proposal canvassed in our CH265548 of 10 September.7
  9. New York's UN4031 and Lisbon's LB3838 are further indications of Portuguese preoccupation with the hostages issue. We would agree that if the release of the prisoners were to be included in the regional approach, this could be an added selling point to the Portuguese. The big difficulty remains that a regional approach like that described in our CH265548 implies that talks among the parties would reach some agreement and there does not seem to be much prospect of such an agreement.
  10. Unless you see particular objections to these latter ideas (para 8 onwards), you might like to float them tentatively with Malik including the idea in our CH365548. The main emphasis of your discussion, it seems to us, should be on the need for Indonesia and Australia both to be seen to be supporting Portuguese efforts to get talks under way (CH2753669) and the need also to begin to consider how we should approach the Timor problem in the Fourth Committee (CH276025). We should also hope that the Indonesians would respond positively to the Portuguese Foreign Minister's latest offer for discussions at Ministerial level. Finally we should like you to ask Malik whether the Indonesians are doing anything to limit the growth of international support for Fretilin in countries like Mozambique, Tanzania and so forth.1)

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