260 Minute from Curtin to Feakes and Joseph

Canberra, 15 October 19751




Fretilin's claims have to be taken very seriously. Its credentials as the legitimate representative of the people of Portuguese Timor are potentially strong in an international debate; as indeed they are within Portuguese Timor. Fretilin, moreover, is the sort of party we would have welcomed, even encouraged, any where else than in Timor. But Fretilin does not claim sovereign power, and it does not call for immediate independence. Indeed Fretilin is still sufficiently realistic (in terms of an assessment of Timor's human and physical resources, and in terms of not offending Indonesia too greatly) or sufficiently immersed in the 'colonial mentality' of dependency, not yet to be ready to say it wants to take over. It remains adamant that independence must come at the conclusion of the decolonisation process, but it still hesitates about taking the final plunge.

So it is not a question of formal Australian recognition ofFretilin. But we may be obliged to accord some recognition to what Fretilin has accomplished. This really means that we will have to take stock of what Indonesia is likely to have to do if it is to turn Fretilin out: unless Indonesia can act very quickly and with very little bloodshed, we will have either to acquiesce in a rather strong and perhaps fairly prolonged dose of Indonesian military action, or to make it clear that we cannot acquiesce in it. Our assessment of the military capability of Fretilin is critically important. It does not however seem likely that they will be pushed aside quickly and gently enough for one to turn a blind eye. This is very much a matter of judgement, but it may well be so. Our problem is that we may have to act before our judgement is tested.

In the end, whatever we might say along the way, we will have to accept whatever happens, but we should be able to seek Indonesian understanding of our wish to express disquiet. We would not be doing anything physically to prevent Indonesia from doing whatever it might believe it has to do. We would simply be asking the Indonesians to allow us publicly to dissociate ourselves from Indonesian military intervention. It would not be an easy diplomatic exercise, but we may have to try it. We would have to work hard to maintain a distinction between support for principles and support for Fretilin, and also to secure understanding that our inability to support Indonesian military intervention is not inconsistent with our friendship with Indonesia.

If we choose to publicly not acquiesce in Indonesian intervention it does not mean that we have to become indifferent as between an Indonesian East Timor and an independent East Timor (or whatever else the people may decide they want). We would say publicly and firmly that, although we cannot agree that force should be used, we hope that the people of Portuguese Timor will choose to join Indonesia, and that we expect them to be given the chance to determine their own future. If Fretilin were to refuse to allow the people to do so we would express our strong dissatisfaction. If Indonesian military action were to follow Fretilin's refusal to allow the people to choose, we would deplore an unfortunate sequence of events. The ideal solution might be for the people to choose to join Indonesia and for Indonesia not to take out its vengeance on Fretilin leaders. But we will almost certainly not get out of it this easily.

If we are to be opposed to Indonesian military intervention and yet not be all the way with Fretilin, we have to explain to the Indonesians what we would in fact like to happen. We would have to argue very strongly for talks leading to the resumption of a decolonisation process (incorporating a genuine act of self-determination). This is, after all, precisely what everyone, including Indonesia and Fretilin, has been saying should happen. And we would be able to make it clear that 'integration' should be clearly put before the people as a legitimate alternative to 'independence'. As the supervision of a decolonisation program would almost certainly be beyond the resources of Portugal, and as a regional arrangement would probably be regarded by Portugal (and certainly by Fretilin) as being too obviously a device to ensure Indonesian take-over, resort to the United Nations seems inevitable. Indeed, any Australian statement of disquiet about Indonesian intervention would almost certainly have to be accompanied by an expression of support for United Nations involvement. As relations with Indonesia could very quickly become very difficult, the sooner United Nations action followed the better. If UN action were delayed too long, Indonesian military occupation might become an accomplished fact and we would have to leave our expressions of disquiet on record, having had to repeat them as the military operation unfolded (we would also have to do this if military action continued after the United Nations attention had been engaged).

In the United Nations it would be up to Indonesia to guide the debate in the direction of allowing Indonesia to have a major hand in the supervision of a decolonisation program. This would require diplomatic skill on Indonesia's part, but, if it had shown restraint in the period leading up to the point of United Nations involvement, the regional countries (including Australia) would be in a good position to lend diplomatic support to Indonesia and to ensure that the United Nations involvement was very much a regional exercise.If,however, Indonesia is presented in the United Nations arena as an aggressor, perhaps already occupying Dili, sympathy for Indonesia might be difficult to muster and effective regional involvement might not be easy. This would make things very difficult for Australia.

The argument for an Australian dissociation from Indonesian military intervention, and for early (rather than later) United Nations involvement thus does not have to be seen as an anti-Indonesian argument. The Indonesians would, initially at least, probably choose to see it that way. We would have to work hard to convince them otherwise. Similarly, the argument does not necessarily entail the total rejection of the Indonesian interpretation of Fretilin (as being at least potentially pro-communist) or of the Indonesian fears about an independent East Tunor (as being at least potentially an unstable entity attracting unwelcome outside interest in the region). The point is simply that we may not be able to support the use of force to do away with Fretilin and its aspirations to East Timorese independence. It may be that Fretilin, if it is given the time required to put its thoughts together in a society where political development has stood still for a thousand years, will find some of the ideas advanced by the various schools of communist theory to be very attractive. Once the 'colonial structure' and the 'colonial mentality' have been pushed aside there may be nothing else left. Timor is thus potentially a political theoretician's delight; and Fretilin's advice is coming mainly from the doctrinaire left. And (especially if Indonesia does not present itself as a friend) there is no reason why an independent East Timor, deep in political experimentation, and desperate for economic and technical assistance, should not look for friends beyond the immediate region. Put in rather less dire terms than the Indonesians tends to put them, Indonesian fears are not entirely without basis. The Indonesians believe that the region simply cannot afford the luxury of an independent East Timor. If an independent and politically radicalised East Timor were to make a go of it, with political and economic help not to Indonesia's liking, it would certainly become something for discontented Indonesians to look to.

[NAA: A1838, 3038/10/1/2, ii]