80 Cablegram to Lisbon

Canberra, 11 February 1975


Portuguese Timor

Ref0.LB689, O.LB6711

We have examined carefully the proposals made to you by Dr Santos on 4 February. As you surmise, his idea do[es] indeed envisage a much greater degree of Australian involvement in P. Timor's future than we would consider desirable at this stage. We hold the view strongly that Portugal itself should bear the prime carriage for decolonisation in P. Timor. We, of course, welcome the willingness of Santos to consult and to invite our views, and we should like to continue the dialogue that you have begun with him. As you also know, it is intended that a senior officer from our Embassy in Jakarta should proceed shortly to P. Timor for discussions, inter alia, with the Governor of the Territory. But it is a long way from this point to accepting any responsibility, as a party principal so to speak, in the decolonisation of P. Timor.

  1. It follows that we are unattracted by the proposal for a 'secret tripartite meeting' to resolve the future of P. Timor. This could risk drawing us much more deeply into the P. Timor problem than our interests dictate. As you noted to Dr Santos, it could also lead to embarrassment, international as well as domestic, should, as would be likely, reports of our participation in such a conclave leak out. We see no need for such a meeting and should like you to discourage Dr Santos from any notion that we might be willing to take on the sort of shared responsibility for P. Timor implied in Santos' proposal.
  2. For similar reasons, we are uneasy about his ideas for a joint economic aid program. This is not the first occasion that he has suggested such an approach. The suggestion arose during Dr Santos' discussions in Canberra and, in addition, he referred to the need for Portugal to share the financial burden in Timor with Australia and Indonesia in his address to UNGA on 3 December last.2
  3. The Australian position as approved by the Minister is that we are willing to consider the provision of aid, together with Portugal and Indonesia. We envisage, however, a more modest contribution than Dr Santos appears to have in mind. Earlier indications were that Ministers would probably wish to limit Australian assistance, initially at least, to the provision of technical aid. But Ministers would certainly be prepared to consider something more substantial (amounting, say, to dollars 1 or 2 million yearly) in the light of changing circumstances. Nevertheless we believe that financial support for Portuguese Timor must primarily be a Portuguese responsibility just as, for many years, we have accepted virtually complete responsibility for external aid to PNG.
  4. We should like you to convey the gist of these remarks on economic aid to Dr Santos, while affirming that, within these general limitations, we would be prepared to consider any specific proposals for assistance that the administration in Timor might wish to make. You could suggest that the Portuguese in Dili might take up the matter with Australian officials who we now expect will be visiting P. Timor at fairly frequent intervals.
  5. Your assumption that we would not wish to approach the Indonesians with Santos' proposals are correct. But we should also have to say that Australian reservations about being drawn too deeply into the Timor problem may not be, and are probably not, shared by the Indonesians. We would raise no objections were Portugal and Indonesia to get together to sort out a common approach to the Timor problem, and indeed we should welcome it. Please make this point too to Dr Santos and propose that, in the light of indications of Indonesian uneasiness about recent developments, he might see value in making an early approach to the Indonesians.
  6. On the more general question of timing of constitutional advance, we again recognise this to be mainly a matter for Portugal to resolve with the Timorese, hopefully in consultation with the Indonesians. We would also hope that all parties would recognise the value of a measured and deliberate approach in P. Timor, this implies some period of preparation before the final act of self-determination. We continue, of course, to stand firmly behind the need for a genuine act of self-determination, whether this be a plebiscite or, as Dr Santos seems to prefer, an election for some kind of constituent assembly. We should like you to underscore this yet again with Dr Santos.
  7. We take your points about the attitudes of the Armed Forces Movement and the possibility that the military may see the need for more rapid decolonisation in Timor than is currently favoured by Dr Santos. The risk that Portugal will simply give up in Timor is very real, and we recognise that such trends could be encouraged by Australian reticence to share Portugal's burden. But, for reasons previously conveyed to you, we also have to weigh up the risks of embroilment and entanglement that a more forward Australian policy would imply.
  8. For the present, and in full recognition of the risks, we should prefer to try to keep Portugal's shoulder to the wheel through counselling and persuasion. We still hope that the Government and Armed Forces in Portugal might be brought to accept that, in the short term anyway, P. Timor should be regarded as analogous to the Macao enclave, where, because of the attitude of a large and influential neighbouring country, Portugal has decided for the present to soldier on.
  9. The Minister has endorsed this telegram.

[NAA: Al838, 49/2/1/1, iv]