71 Letter from Willesee to Whitlam

Canberra, 14 January 19751


In my letter to you of 10 December, 1974 regarding a proposed visit to Portuguese Timor by a joint parliamentary delegation.2 I mentioned that a comprehensive paper had been prepared for my consideration which proposed several recommendations for future Australian policy towards the territory.3 This earlier letter foreshadowed some of the paper's conclusions and policy recommendations. I have now considered the paper in detail and have endorsed all its recommendations.

In view of your own interest in Portuguese Timor, and your discussions on the matter with President Soeharto last September, I thought that you should wish to see the paper yourself. A copy is enclosed. I should add that the paper was the result of very careful consideration and consultation among the senior officers of my Department.

In the months since the April 1974 coup in Portugal, two main elements have emerged in our policy towards Portuguese Timor: first, an appreciation that the association of Portuguese Timor with Indonesia would best suit our national interests; and second, our commitment to the right of the people of Portuguese Timor to decide their own political future by means of an internationally acceptable act of self-determination. When those two main elements in our policy towards Portuguese Timor were emerging, we knew little of developments in the territory. We now know more of the evolving situation there. It points to the incompatibility of the two objectives: self-determination is likely to yield a result other than the association of Portuguese Timor with Indonesia.

The underlying thrust of my Department's paper is to place more emphasis in our future policy on our commitment to the right of the people of the territory to decide their own political future. At the same time we believe that we should take a step backwards from involvement in the problem of Portuguese Timor in order to avoid becoming any more enmeshed in it than we need be. There can be no doubt that the Timorese would like to involve us, if only to act as a countervailing force to Indonesia. But clearly we cannot allow our relations with Indonesia to be at the mercy of Mr Ramos Horta and his FRETILIN group. I understand that this is very much your own view as reflected in your letter to me of 13 December,4 responding to mine of 10 December.

The other main recommendations of the paper are that:

  1. we should maintain a dialogue with the Indonesians about the problem of Portuguese Timor in order to try to divert them from too forward a policy and to ensure that developments there do not become an obstacle to good relations between Australia and Indonesia;
  2. we should take suitable opportunities to explain to Timorese leaders that Australia would respect the wishes of the people of the territory expressed in a genuine act of self-determination, and that they should beware, of course, of action which would risk playing into Indonesian hands;
  3. we do not for the present open a Consulate in Dili;
  4. if we provide aid it should preferably be under a joint Portuguese-Indonesian-Australian umbrella and that for the time being anyway we should leave the initiative to the Portuguese or Indonesians.

I should emphasise that steering clear of political entanglements in Portuguese Timor would not imply simply turning our backs on the territory. Indeed, developments relating to Portuguese Timor will have to be kept under close, continuous review and I should expect that our policies will have to be adjusted at fairly frequent intervals to take account of those developments.

My own feeling is that the conclusions reached in the paper are sound and, as I say, I have endorsed them. You may wish to consider whether you would wish to signify your endorsement of them as well.

I have also felt that this is a subject in which our colleague, the Minister for Defence, would have a keen interest. Accordingly, I am sending him a copy of this letter together with a copy of the paper on Portuguese Timor.

[NAA: A1209, 7417573]