Report by the Working Group of Departmental Officers

Canberra, 4 April 1963


The Future of Portuguese Timor


Portugal's colonial interests are of major internal importance within the Portuguese State. Some change should follow the retirement or death of Dr. Salazar whose purpose is to maintain the status quo.

  1. Portugal will not allow Portuguese Timor to be the subject of international action because of the consequences for the much more important African territories. We think Portugal would see less harm in a violent Indonesian annexation than in the processes of orderly internationally-conducted change.
  2. Indonesia has put itself in a false position by its public statements. Sooner or later Indonesia will be obliged to declare that Portuguese colonialism in Timor must go. This will arouse fear of expansionism and aggression. While there are many pressures at work in Indonesia, the prospects for a flexible and careful approach need not be ruled out.
  3. Bilateral discussions with Portugal will not achieve very much. Nor will Portugal be moved by United Nations discussion.
  4. But early discussion in the United Nations has considerable merit:
    1. Australia can go on record with a positive statement about the future of the territory;
    2. It would be made more difficult for Indonesia to take unilateral, violent action.
  5. What we have to fear in particular is an uprising and bloody suppression leading to Indonesian intervention. If the matter is already actively before the United Nations, Indonesia may itself allow the main action to be determined in the United Nations. In any event there would be better chances of a realistic engagement of the United Nations in such a situation and better chances for Australia avoiding a head-on clash with Indonesia.
  6. We should discuss the matter-in terms of consideration in the United Nations-with Indonesia in careful terms at an early date.
  7. We should prepare public opinion, so that it can make a balanced judgement in a crisis.

The Future of Portuguese Timor

Report of Working Group of Departmental Officers

The Working Group on Portuguese Timor was established in March 1963 to explore the possible measures for the solution of the Portuguese Timor problem; and to analyse developments which, if they can be initiated or encouraged, would produce the least embarrassment to Australia's foreign policy and national interests.1

[matter omitted]2

Prospects for a solution of the problem

  1. We might begin by asking the question 'Will Portugal consider separately the problem of Portuguese Timor?' In our view the answer lies in the fact that Portugal is primarily interested in Angola and Mozambique. We think it is not prepared to embark on any course of action for Portuguese Timor which would compromise its position on those territories either in the United Nations, in the territories themselves, or internally in Portugal. It is most sensitive on questions of self-determination (apart from its own metaphysical usage of the term) as leading swiftly and irrevocably to the collapse of its colonial system. It would seem to follow that Australian and Portuguese interests are widely divergent in important respects:-
    1. Our concern is to find peaceful and legitimate processes to end Portuguese rule in Portuguese Timor. Portugal's concern is that such processes would have grave implications and would undermine her colonial system;
    2. Our concern is that Portuguese Timor should not be forcibly annexed by Indonesia. Portugal, on the other hand, would probably prefer Portuguese Timor to be speedily and forcibly annexed rather than enter into agreements.
  2. The problem of self-determination should be mentioned here. Cabinet's view is that Portugal should 'cede peacefully' to Indonesia,3 but the Government would certainly wish cession to be accompanied by some process of self-determination. Moreover, we would expect that the Indonesians themselves would want some expression of self-determination to protect them from the accusation of neo-colonialism by making deals with a colonialist power. Perhaps in theory the problem of self-determination is not insurmountable and might be overcome by a West New Guinea type of arrangement.4 Portugal for its part would make a decision to cede or hand-over to an international body, and would not interest itself in the subsequent processes by which Indonesia incorporated the peoples of the territory.
  3. We do not think, however, even if the self-determination point can be settled that Portugal can be brought to cede. Portugal could be expected to be fairly indifferent to our warnings that the alternative would be a violent Indonesian annexure without any other country coming to her support. As argued above, their view would probably be that if there is to be another Goa, then let it be. Portugal did not compromise over Goa in the face of the constant likelihood of Indian action; in Timor, on the other hand, they at least have assurances from the Indonesian Government. What other forms of persuasions do we have? One might seek to argue that the cession of Portuguese Timor would not prejudice the position elsewhere; Portuguese Timor is an economic liability; it can have no independent future; its position is not comparable to that of the big African territories; it lives in the shadow of a huge neighbour of like race and culture. Portugal is free to dispose of it, especially as it is regarded as part of Portugal. However, at a time when Portugal is under continually growing pressure in the United Nations over the African territories and is facing liberation revolts in those territories the prospects for a separate approach by the Portuguese authorities in Timor, where they do not feel urgent pressures, must be slender if not hopeless.
  4. A useful line of approach might be for Catholic authorities to represent the case to Portugal after satisfying themselves (as they can) about religious tolerance in Indonesia. There is evidence that some Indonesian leaders are already working on this line of approach. Our view is that this is useful but that the Portuguese will not make decisions about Timor in isolation. On the most hopeful view we would not expect early action to follow from such representations.

    Preparing the ground-work in the United Nations

  5. The view was expressed at the tripartite talks in Washington that little could be done in the United Nations because of Portugal's problems with the African territories. We feel, however, after surveying the doubtful prospects for bilateral discussion and negotiation with Portugal that the maximum use must be made of United Nations machinery on decolonisation. A preliminary question we must ask is whether it would be prejudicial to Australia's other interests for the Committee of Twenty Four to tum its attention to Portuguese Timor at an early date. Our present view is that it suits us to have the Committee focus its attention on Africa and it is likely that this preoccupation of the Committee could continue for some time to come. We do not consider this to be of overriding importance.
  6. We see no immediate prospect of United Nations pressure causing a change in Portuguese policy, and the most we could expect would be that a line of communication on the matter might be opened up between Portugal and the United Nations e.g. by the former accepting the interest of the Secretary-General in a personal capacity. An indirect consequence would be that statements made by countries like Australia would have some effect within Portugal itself, which is a not unimportant aspect in view of Salazar's age.
  7. While they may not offer early hopes of a solution of this problem, we think there are useful steps to be taken in the United Nations which are consistent with our own principles; which are advantageous to our international relationships; and which offer some prospect of increasing our influence and scope for manoeuvre. We think that constructive discussion in the United Nations will 'steal the Indonesian wind' and make it more difficult for them to go off on a course of their own. Moreover, if the Indonesians are disposed to cooperate on the issue, the fact that the United Nations is seized of it might be useful for them internally. In addition, Australia will be on record as having expressed a positive and constructive point of view which would be useful if a crisis should develop.
  8. We have in mind that-
    1. We have made it clear in the United Nations that so far as Australia[n] New Guinea is concerned we accept the obligations of the Charter, and that our policies are to bring about conditions as speedily as practicable for the exercise of self-determination;
    2. So far as the Portuguese Overseas territories are concerned, in the Committee of Twenty Four on Decolonisation, we have said (quite sharply) that we have been profoundly disturbed by the professed objectives and by the practices of the Portuguese Government in its administration of those Territories; that we have found them falling far short of the fulfilment of the obligations laid down in the Charter of the United Nations; and that we believe that the provisions of Chapter XI of the Charter ought to be observed. We have further stated our belief that the peoples of the Portuguese territories ought, in the same way as the people of other dependent territories, to be given the opportunity to determine their own future and that they ought not to be deprived of the right of self-determination.
    3. We have adequately warned the Portuguese Government of our view that the Charter principle of self-determination is applicable to Portuguese Timor.
  9. Neither we nor the other members of the Committee have specifically referred to Portuguese Timor, the debates having been addressed to the African Territories. We recommend that Australia put itself on record at an early date in the Committee of Twenty Four (or elsewhere in the United Nations) that Portuguese Timor properly falls within the ambit of the non-self-governing territories articles of the Charter, and that we regard the principle of self-determination as applying to the people of Portuguese Timor. We could say that it is the duty of Portugal to promote a rate of social and economic development as will provide a basis for the exercise of this right. We accept that this is a Charter obligation which governs our own policies as it should Portugal's. We could acknowledge (in careful terms) that on account of its size and nature, the future of Portuguese Timor need not be thought of solely in terms of independence and that other possible answers may suit the wishes of the inhabitants. We could also state that the future of Portuguese Timor is of natural concern to its neighbours who may be involved in arrangements and guarantees through the United Nations. (An invitation might be arranged discreetly through the Chairman of the Committee for Indonesia to express its views).
  10. We should discuss the future of Portuguese Timor with Indonesia at an appropriate time on the basis that the two countries are its closest neighbours and that the present status cannot last indefinitely.While letting Indonesia understand that Australia would not oppose the territory eventually becoming a part of Indonesia through satisfactory processes of self-determination, we might also urge that there are other worthwhile possibilities for consideration. For example, the Territory might acquire a measure of autonomy under the protection externally of Indonesia. The Indonesians could be encouraged to look at various international precedents for a solution short of full incorporation in Indonesia, although ultimately that might come to pass. In talking to the Indonesians we should avoid being over-eager to suggest that inevitably the territory of Portuguese Timor should pass to them and that we don't have any scruples about that eventuality except the use of force. We should make continued reference to the argument of self-determination. Otherwise, we place ourselves in the position of being an accomplice of Indonesia in an exercise in 'realpolitik' which, we believe, would earn the reverse of their healthy respect. Also, we weaken in their eyes our moral and political stand over Australian New Guinea; some of the arguments which would rationalize an annexation of Timor could be eventually applied to Australian New Guinea.
  11. The Working Group thinks there is an argument for having the discussions with the Indonesians first. They are directly concerned and our failure to consult them in advance might rebound against us on another issue where we might expect to be consulted. We could explain to them that we believe it is in the common interest that Portuguese Timor be discussed in the United Nations in the near future, that Australia would follow progressive policies when it was discussed, and that the Indonesian Government would be better placed to handle its own anti-colonial public opinion if it could make reference to the matter being before the United Nations.
  12. It is possible that the Indonesians might satisfy us by their attitude that the matter is not urgent, and we may feel sufficiently reassured to let the Committee of Twenty Four keep its attention on Africa. On the other hand, we are inclined to think that the sooner the question is brought before the United Nations the better. What we have most to fear is a movement of resistance which will either be aided by Indonesia or will be so regarded by the Portuguese. We cannot expect that Indonesia would stand idly by. Nor could we. Under these circumstances, if the United Nations was already seized of the matter and Australia and Indonesia were on record there, it might be good practical diplomacy in the interests of both countries to have speedy recourse to the United Nations. We believe this would add a valuable element to our present policy. As matters now stand, our Ambassador has standing instructions to speak in sharp terms if there are clear indications of an Indonesian threat; the subsequent step would be to arraign Indonesia before the bar of the United Nations and go through the sterile procedure of urging a cease-fire and withdrawal of forces. What we are searching for are courses of action which would dispose the Indonesians to cooperate with orderly and constructive United Nations processes rather than taking unilateral action and relying on its appeal to Afro-Asians and communist countries as an anti-Portuguese, anti-colonial, liberating force. Given the importance which Indonesia places upon its standing in the United Nations this is a not unrealistic objective.
  13. Whatever the prospects for peaceful developments, it seems to us essential that Australian public opinion be given information which would prepare it to make a balanced judgement in the event of a crisis. The issue should not be allowed to appear simply as Indonesian expansionism. Indonesia will be under pressures; rebel leaders may call for help; the nature of the Portuguese regime is a provocation. It would be helpful to have press articles which describe the poor quality of the Portuguese administration, its unprogressive character, and its inability to offer a future to the Timorese. Also, should Portuguese intransigence be in evidence over a period of time in United Nations discussions there might be less public censure attaching to Indonesia if it took the matter into its own hands.
  14. If this line of approach is accepted, further consideration will be needed on the timing of action in the United Nations and with the Indonesians; and the question of further discussion with the quadripartite group of countries will have to be decided.
  15. Finally, a reply should be sent to Dr. Salazar's recent letter5 which would take up in particular the assumptions he has made about Australian policy.

[NAA: Al838, 3038/10/1, ii]