265 Cablegram to Canberra

Jakarta, 16 October 1975


Portuguese Timor

Lisbon for Cooper; UN New York for Harry and Campbell

I had a long and very frank discussion with General Benny Moerdani last evening, 15 October. General Moerdani had returned the previous day from a visit to Timor, including Batugade.

  1. On the operations which were launched yesterday, 15 October, General Moerdani confirmed what Tjan had already told us and which we reported in our JA2432.1 Moerdani said that during his visit he had confirmed his impression that Apodeti and UDT only had about 200 of what he would call good front line troops. Another 800 would need several months training before they could fight effectively. In these circumstances there was no alternative to a higher level of Indonesian assistance than the President wanted and both Apodeti and UDT had requested this. There would be casualties. Already one Indonesian soldier had been killed, nine wounded and two were missing. General Moerdani added that all the Indonesians involved would be 'volunteers'. Each would have signed a document to this effect. Most would be ethnic Timorese. Initially, they would not penetrate beyond a line roughly from Liquica in the north through Aileu to Same in the south. He expected to see results by the end of this month.2
  2. I asked whether there was not some alternative to a course of action which would involve substantial Indonesian assistance which would be likely to become public and which, in turn, could stir up further widespread criticism of Indonesia in Australia. General Moerdani said 'no'. As I would know it had been decided that Indonesia would not accept the consolidation of Fretilin control in East Timor and was not prepared to live with an independent East Timor under Fretilin control. It was easy for stable countries or distant countries to take the view that East Timor should be independent. What happened in the Indonesian Archipelago was of little consequence to countries in Africa and parts of Europe. But, looking ahead five or ten years, what could happen in East Timor was, by contrast, vital to Indonesia. Indonesia had its principles too and orderly decolonisation was one of them but it also had to give precedence to preserving its hard won national unity and its future national security.
  3. I said that as he would know Australia could not condone the use of force by Indonesia to achieve its objectives even if we understood and sympathised with these objectives. General Moerdani said he knew this. Australia and for that matter other countries had three options; to support Indonesia, to oppose Indonesia, or to keep quiet. General Moerdani said that he, the President and others owed Mr Whitlam a great debt for the understanding he had shown, of Indonesia's position and for the helpful position he had adopted. The President greatly valued this. But he also appreciated the difficulties the Government faced. If the Australian Government could not support Indonesia publicly in the months ahead, then he hoped that we would adopt the third option and keep quiet.
  4. I asked General Moerdani what Indonesia would do if the going got tough and the UDT/ APODETI/Indonesian force encountered really stiff resistance from Fretilin. I added that some Australian officials would assess that Fretilin had already established its control in East Timor and they would resist strongly attempts to wrest control from them. General Moerdani said 'I am aware of this but we will do what we have to do'. He added that, in the long run, Fretilin could not sustain its control. He did not believe it was popular in the countryside, especially in the most densely populated area in the central west of Portuguese Timor where nearly 400,000 of the 600,000 population lived. He could understand people in Australia and elsewhere thinking that Fretilin had established its control. In fact it had but temporarily and by force. Indonesia had been slow to react and its handling of the situation had been 'clumsy'. He added 'I am a soldier not a politician. If I had been authorised to do so, I could have tied up Timor in a week. But the old man hesitated and would not let us do what should have been done. He looks 50 years ahead when Indonesia will really be a major power and he does not want Indonesians then to look back on him as a President who could be called a bully or an aggressor'.
  5. I posed the direct question whether, given this and the President's restraint in recent months, he would, if the going became really tough, draw back or agree to the escalation of Indonesian involvement. General Moerdani said that the President had already authorised on a contingency basis intervention at brigade or divisional strength if a third country involved itself in Timor. He was not sure whether the President had addressed himself to what he would do in the circumstances I had described. Moerdani said that while the going might get quite tough he did not believe that Indonesia would draw back. It was committed to a certain policy and a certain course of action. He was in command of the operation and he certainly would not draw back.
  6. I asked again whether Indonesia was prepared to accept the likely reaction in Australia, in the United Nations and possibly in some other countries to an obviously Indonesia backed attempt to wrest control from Fretilin. He said simply 'Yes'. But he added that Indonesia, perhaps belatedly, would do much more to undermine Fretilin's claims and to present its own case more effectively in the United Nations and in Africa than it had so far done. He would be briefing the Indonesian delegation in New York next week and Joao Carascalao would be visiting countries in Africa and New York to put the UDT/Apodeti side. Perhaps the reaction would not be so strong in any case. The situation in Timor would be confused by claims and counter claims, by Fretilin allegations and Indonesian, Apodeti and UDT denials. The major powers with the possible exception of China would avoid as far as possible involving themselves. Most countries were not interested in the future of Timor.
  7. Tjan had said that the plan was to isolate Dili and to secure Fretilin's surrender. Was this practical? Did they expect Fretilin to surrender without a fight? Moerdani's reply was slightly different from what Tjan had told us. He said that he doubted whether Fretilin would actually surrender. Its position would simply become untenable and if talks were to take place between the parties Fretilin's position would be weaker. (I think Moerdani still nourishes some hopes that some Fretilin leaders will come to realise that their only hope lies in cooperation with Indonesia but this hope is not shared by others involved in Timor policy, including Tjan.)
  8. Moerdani asked me about Australian policy. Would Mr Whitlam and his Government 'stand firm' especially given its present domestic difficulties? Malik had told him that there could be some weakening of Australia's support for Indonesia. (I do not know whether Malik got some hint of this in New York or from Her Tasning in Canberra but it is the first reference we have had here to this.) Moerdani said he understood the Government's problems but he hoped we would stand firm and not turn out to be 'fair weather friends'. Australia's attitude was very important. Malaysia and neighbouring countries would, as far as possible, support Indonesia. The major powers with the possible exception of China would say nothing. Australia was 'white'. Mr Whitlam had great standing overseas and the Australian Government's reaction would influence other governments including some in the third world. I said that I was not aware of any change in Australian policy at this stage. The Prime Minister's statement in the House on the 26 August3 was still our most recent definitive statement of policy. As far as I knew the Government stood by what was said on this occasion and by what the Prime Minister had said to the President in Townsville.
  9. The fact remained however that the two main strands of our policy, namely support for the Australian/Indonesian relationship and understanding oflndonesia's wish to see the integration of Timor into Indonesia on the one hand, and support for the principle of self-determination, on the other, now seemed difficult if not impossible to reconcile, given the way in which the situation had developed. Moerdani said that he believed that in a few months' time the most populated area of Timor would declare itself in favour of integration with Indonesia. Once this had been 'organised', journalists and others could come in and see for themselves. There was no reason why this should not work out. The people were Timorese on both sides of the island.
  10. I raised the question of talks. I said that while the Australian Government regarded talks between the parties and between Portugal and Indonesia as desirable and while we regarded United Nations involvement as more or less inevitable, Indonesian policy seemed to be conducted on two levels. Speaking frankly, was this the case? (As you know we have consistently maintained this position in our reporting.) Moerdani said 'yes'. Malik would meet the Portuguese Foreign Minister probably in Rome in the first week of November. Talks between Portugal and the three parties might also take place before or after the Rome talks. But this would not affect the continuing operation on the ground except in so far as Fretilin's position in any talks would be weakened. I said that this implied that the Indonesians were not prepared to explore seriously with Portugal whether there was still the possibility of a political settlement which would accommodate Indonesia's interests. Moerdani said that Indonesia would be 'correct' with Portugal and talks would go ahead. But he simply did not believe that the basis for a political settlement satisfactory to Indonesia existed, given Fretilin's present attitude and Portugal's continuing domestic problems.
  11. Moerdani also said some action was proceeding in Timor on the political side. He had decided Indonesia's support for UDT was likely to backfire. UDT represented the former pro­ Portuguese middle class interests. Apodeti was now emerging as the stronger political force. General Moerdani said that the emphasis on anti-communism in the public attitudes ofUDT, KOTA and TRABALISTA could ultimately cause the socialist countries to react. The Anti­ Communist Movement's name would be changed as well as the anti-communist emphasis in its public pronouncements about Fretilin.
  12. I asked about the twenty-three Portuguese hostages. General Moerdani said they were still in Indonesian Timor. This was a problem. UDT should take them back to Portuguese Timor but Indonesia could not leave it to UDT. If it did so, some would probably be killed, especially the Major, who it was alleged had supplied Fretilin with arms. A formula needed to be found. Indonesia could not allow any of the Portuguese to be executed as General Panggabean had told me but continuing to hold them especially in Indonesia could be counter-productive.

Australian Overflights ofTimor

  1. General Moerdani then raised the question of overflights which Adenan had raised with Dan the previous day (our JA2429). He said that Indonesia was concerned that a Neptune had 'buzzed' Kupang at an altitude of less than 2,000 feet on the 3 October. A Caribou had also violated Indonesian airspace over Atapupu on the 2 October. Was the Neptune carrying out a reconnaissance? Indonesia had been extraordinarily frank with myself, Dan and Taylor in taking us completely into their confidence. It would be regrettable if, notwithstanding this, we found it necessary to conduct intelligence operations against Indonesia and to violate Indonesian airspace. I told General Moerdani that we had enquired about these flights on the basis of whatAdenan had said. I also said that we greatly appreciated the frankness with which he and Tjan in particular had spoken to us. This was important. If our relations were going through a period of some complexity and possible strain we each needed to know where the other stood.


  1. In this context I also raised the question of demonstrations. I said that 'the eye for an eye' approach which Adenan had foreshadowed to Dan could be counter-productive. Our societies were different. While we could not prevent peaceful demonstrations Indonesia could and did control them. There were forces in Australia which were opposed to the Australianllndonesian relationship and would like to see the Soeharto Government brought down. They were not necessarily numerous but they were active. They saw in the Timor situation an issue which they could use to stir up hostility towards Indonesia. If Indonesia re-acted here to every demonstration and action staged by these groups in Australia it would be playing into their hands. General Moerdani said he knew this. Occasionally student groups would be allowed to make representations to us [but] these would be carefully watched. He did add, however, cryptically that if the going got really rough then the situation might get out of control and activist groups might be exploited by other influences as they had been at the time of Malari riots in 1974. But he believed he could prevent this happening.
  2. I have cabled Moerdani's views at some length as they may be timely if JIO's assessment (your O.CH2778264) is not yet complete and because I believe they accurately reflect Indonesia's present policies and intentions at an important stage. He also has control of the operation on the ground. It is necessary to keep in mind however that the President and Malik will be adopting different positions in public.
  3. In these circumstances I can only repeat my earlier comments that, in the next few weeks, we are going to need steady nerves and to keep our assessment of our longer term interests in this region in front of us.


[NAA: Al0463, 801/13/11/1, xv]