28 Background Paper

Canberra, 11 September 1974


The Future of Portuguese Timor

Press reports have suggested that the Prime Minister and President Soeharto of Indonesia discussed the future of Portuguese Timor, at their recent meeting. This paper examines briefly the question of the future of that territory.

[matter omitted]

Indonesian Attitude

Indonesia regards itself as the successor state to the Netherlands East Indies. Consequently, it makes no legal claim to Portuguese Timor. Indonesia does regard the territory however as geographically a part of the Indonesian world, and for cultural, ethnic and historical reasons it considers that its inclusion in Indonesia would represent valid decolonisation and the most natural course to that end.

Indonesia has considerable strategic anxieties about Portuguese Timor. It is concerned that an independent Portuguese Timor might not be able to resist external influences inimical to Indonesia as a result of its inevitable economic and military weakness. In particular it is concerned that such a situation could threaten Indonesia's national unity and territorial integrity and disturb the progress being made towards the achievement of wider regional harmony and cooperation. Thus, while Indonesia is committed to the principle of self-determination by colonial peoples, it has reservations about an independent Portuguese Timor. In these circumstances, Indonesia sees the ultimate incorporation of Portuguese Timor within Indonesia as being in the best interests of the region and of Indonesia, while recognising that the people of Portuguese Timor have a right to self-determination.

Australian Position

Australia has no ambitions in Portuguese Timor, and the Australian Government is firmly committed to the principle of self-determination of all remaining colonial territories. It is essentially concerned that decolonisation should proceed on the basis of self-determination and that the ultimate disposition of Portuguese Timor should not prejudice political confidence and harmony in the region, particularly in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

In the Australian view the primary questions requiring determination are the wishes of the people of Portuguese Timor regarding the future of the territory, and how the long-term stability of the region might best be assured.

Because of the rudimentary stage of political development in the territory an act of self-determination would need to be prepared carefully, gradually and over a period of time, otherwise the decision of the people may not be based on a full and informed appreciation of the best future interests of the territory and could therefore prejudice regional stability.

At the present stage Australia has doubts whether the territory would in fact achieve real independence if its people chose completely separate status, given the relative weakness of the economy and its inevitably limited defence capability. Accordingly Australia appreciates Indonesia's concern about the future of the territory and shares its belief that the voluntary union of Portuguese Timor with Indonesia, on the basis of an internationally acceptable act of self-determination, would seem to serve the objective of decolonisation, and at the same time the interests of stability in the region.

A close dialogue with the Portuguese Government on the matter would be in the interests of all parties. Consistent with this belief the Australian Government is in consultation with the authorities in Lisbon. The Government has also indicated to the Indonesian Government that it would see the reopening of an embassy in Lisbon as helpful in the overall process.1

[NAA: A1838, 3034/10/11124, iii]