423 Letter from Woolcott to Miller

Canberra, 10 February 1976


Thank you for your letter of 11 December 1975.1 I must apologise for not replying sooner. Much has happened since then but I would like to comment on several of the points in your letter and the papers attached to it. My cable O.JA3981,2 leaked by some disloyal officer or misguided idealist, touched directly or indirectly on most of the points.

First, I note that you agree that we should seek to limit the harm to our relations with Indonesia which its action in Timor will cause. I note also your comments on the undesirability of institutionalising the clash between our relations with Indonesia and our commitment to self-determination. I fear, however, this is the direction our policy is taking now.

Thrning to your submission of 12 September 1975,4 frankly I am surprised that you would seriously contemplate at that time that Indonesia could have been persuaded to accept an independent Timor under Fretilin, or any other party for that matter. We have been reporting for a long time that Indonesia would not accept an independent East Timor. My despatch No 11754 also made this clear. (See also for example O.JA73405 of 31 January 1976 and O.JA74456 of 5 February 1976.) A firm decision by the Indonesian Government to incorporate East Timor was taken in late 1974. (That is why it comes as a surprise to read in your submission: 'After the Indonesians have made their decisions, whatever they are .. .')

There was no way, in my opinion, that Australia could have changed that decision, especially by 1975. This view of Indonesia's decision is shared by virtually all my colleagues here.

By the way, you say in your submission that the 'Indonesians have, shrewdly, compromised us by making sure that we know their plans for covert intervention in some detail'. This is hardly fair to the Embassy. Certainly there was an element of this (and we were alert to it all along). But for a great deal of the information we had to work hard to get it. In some respects the Embassy may have done this aspect of its job-establishing confidence in the right places and acquiring political intelligence-too well.

I was also surprised at the degree of influence you seem to assume in your submission that Australia has with the Indonesians on this matter. The Indonesians were keen to get our sympathy for their objectives, but there was never a serious chance that our opposition to their policy would change those objectives. They were after all dealing with their long-term national interests. I do not know what 'concessions, guarantees and safeguards' Indonesia could have obtained from a Fretilin-dominated independent East Timor, especially in the longer run and when they looked at Angola. Given the attitude ofthe Fretilin leaders ('independence or death' for example) I doubt whether they would have amounted to much in any case. Fretilin's dominance in East Timor (para 11 of your submission) was, as we always reported, likely to be temporary and transient. With its UDI of course it virtually signed its own death warrant.

Moreover, the Indonesians feared that an independent East Timor could become 'the Cuba of the South Seas'. These fears may to us seem unreasonable but they are deeply held by Indonesia and are basic to Indonesian policy. They saw intervention now as less costly and as distracting them less from more important tasks than having continually to prepare against the likelihood, as they saw it, that East Timor would come to threaten Indonesia's security.

If an integrated East Timor were to prove a 'festering sore' then Indonesia's calculation on costs would be wrong. But they do not believe the situation will develop in that way. Evidence available to me at present does not suggest that they will be unable to prevent such a situation developing.

Finally, I find Ross Cottrill's point, that if an independent East Timor turned sour as far as Indonesia was concerned then Indonesia could do something about it, glib and untenable.7 Surely Indonesia would face many more international problems by intervening militarily in an independent country, than it would in intervening in a colonial territory experiencing a civil war at the request of some of the parties and over which the colonial power refused, or was unable, to exercise its responsibility?

I have not attempted to answer you on each point. There are others but I think I have covered the main areas.

What we need is a coherent policy based on our own assessment of our longer term national interests in the region. Opposition to the use of force and support for an act of self­-determination are perfectly natural and correct attitudes. But moral attitudes are not enough. Nor are essentially reactive responses for domestic political reasons to newspaper editorials. We need a policy too. For example, do we—Australia, not Indonesia—want to see an independent East Timor? Do we want to place ourselves, with Mozambique, China and North Vietnam, in the vanguard of Indonesia's international critics when the former is unimportant and ill-informed on the issue and the latter two are themselves primarily making gestures to the third world?

[NAA: A10463, 801/13/11/1. xx]