308 Cablegram to Jakarta and Lisbon

Canberra, 29 October 1975


Following is text of Statement.


The Government has seen these reports. They suggest a degree of Indonesian military intervention in the affairs of Portuguese Timor. The Australian Government regrets this development. It has expressed its extreme disappointment in Jakarta. It has urged that Indonesia pursue her interests through diplomatic means. We have told the Indonesians that we remain opposed to the use of armed force. We have also said that we are firm in the view that the people of Portuguese Timor should be allowed to determine their own future. We have urged the Indonesian authorities to reaffirm their own public commitment to the principle of self­-determination in Portuguese Timor.

The position of the Australian Government in all this is clear. We deplore the fighting in the border areas. We continue to believe that a solution to the problems in Portuguese Timor should be sought through peaceful means and free of external intervention. Indonesia has been made aware of our views in this regard.

If there is one ray of hope in all this gloom, it is the possibility that talks will at last get under way. The Indonesian Foreign Minister has agreed to meet with his Portuguese counterpart in Europe this week. Fretilin and UDT have also signified in recent days their willingness to hold separate talks with the Portuguese. We hope that Apodeti will also agree to talks with the Portuguese, and that all three parties will reconsider their present refusal to talk to each other. The Australian Government strongly supports resolution of the conflict in Portuguese Timor by peaceful means through which the will of the people will be expressed.

We have made numerous representations to this effect to the Portuguese, to the Indonesians, and to the representatives ofFretilin who have visited Australia. I have very recently instructed the Australian Ambassadors in Lisbon and Jakarta to reiterate to the Portuguese and Indonesian Governments our firm hope that the talks between these two Governments later this week result in a positive and constructive outcome. Were all the parties to wish it, the Government would be prepared to offer an Australian venue for round-table talks.

The Portuguese cannot escape their share of the responsibility. Portugal is the administering power, but it was very much weakness of purpose on the part of the Portuguese administration which allowed the UDT 'show of force' in early August to develop into a probably unintended coup and thus provoked the Fretilin counter-coup. lt seems that Timor, like Angola, has become part of the debris of the Portuguese revolution.

That the situation in Portuguese Timor has come to this pass is in itself for deep regret. It reflects, above all, the immaturity of Timor's own aspiring political leaders, who in less than eighteen months have succeeded in wrecking Portugal's decolonisation program, sharply polarizing political opinions through the territory, and finally plunging the territory into violent civil war. The past eighteen months have turned out to be a graveyard of all those earlier hopes that the Timorese politicians, representing a small Western-educated elite, would shelve their differences for the sake of the territory at large.

From the time of the overthrow of the Caetano regime in Lisbon and the subsequent decision of the Portuguese to shed their overseas territories, the Australian Government had hoped that the decolonisation process in Portuguese Timor could proceed in an orderly fashion which allowed the people of the territory to decide their own future.

We had hoped that Portugal would remain in control for a period long enough for the political consciousness of the people to develop to the point where there was a substantial measure of agreement regarding the future.

The need for orderly progress had also been of paramount importance in view of the interest of the countries of the region, particularly Indonesia but also Australia and other regional countries, in ensuring that the territory would not emerge in a way which would have a unsettling effect on the region.

These hopes which the Government had worked hard to see realized have unhappily not been borne out. Portugal's inability, or reluctance, to retain control opened the way to a struggle for supremacy among a number of essentially immature, rival political factions.

From this struggle the Fretilin group, aided by the Timorese army units and by access to Portuguese arms, emerged as being stronger than its rivals.

The Australian Government had still hoped-and acted accordingly-that agreement on the future of the territory could have been reached by negotiations between Portugal and the main contending factions. But the scheduled meeting for 20 September did not take place, at least in part because of the intransigence of Fretilin, which has continued to claim to the United Nations and the world in general that it is the only authentic and legitimate voice of Portuguese Timor.

Fretilin has since agreed that it will speak to the Portuguese-but not, yet, to the other parties. So had UDT, but UDT too is now attempting to lay down preconditions, while the Portuguese for their part have sometimes appeared more concerned about the fate of 23 Portuguese prisoners held by UDT (ignoring those held by Fretilin) than with getting the parties around the table. Fretilin has certainly now said that it continues to recognise Portuguese sovereignty and the right of Portugal to preside over the decolonisation process, but it seems that it wants to lay down all the ground rules for the process.

It is in this situation of drift, of Fretilin's refusal to accept that UDT or Apodeti have anything further to contribute to the decolonisation process, and of Portugal's refusal to reassert its authority in the territory, that the Indonesians have evidently responded to UDT and Apodeti appeals for military assistance. Indonesia can point to the presence of over 40,000 refugees in her territory, some 7 per cent of Portuguese Timor's entire population. It can correctly claim that Fretilin has established its present position of supremacy because it controlled the army and not necessarily because it had overwhelming popular support. It can argue, as indeed we ourselves have been inclined to argue, that prior to the recent troubles UDT was vying with, and possibly exceeding, Fretilin in terms of popular support. All this perhaps goes some way towards explaining Indonesia's actions. We should not lose sight of Indonesia's concern about order and stability in Portuguese Timor, which is located in the middle of the Indonesian archipelago. It is necessary that we, the Portuguese and the parties in Timor should recognise the importance of the Indonesian interest in the territory, just as other countries in the region do.

No more than Indonesia, can Australia accept any one party's claim to be the only true representative of Portuguese Timor. Fretilin may have prevailed over its rivals in the initial round of fighting and skirmishing but it has established no right thereby to speak for all Timorese. These matters should not be settled by force of arms: what if the Timorese army had decided to side with UDT, or with Apodeti, or had staged a purely military coup? Of course, nor can UDT or Apodeti claim to speak for the people of Portuguese Timor simply if they are now demonstrating military prowess against Fretilin in military conflict. These matters, I repeat, should not be settled by force.

The Australian Government does not pretend to know what the people of Portuguese Timor want. But we do want them to have the opportunity to say what they want. The need in our view is to get all the parties round the table for talks. The Australian Government is doing what it can to help such talks on their way.

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