Memorandum to Canberra

Jakarta, 28 June 1974


Portuguese Timor

In private conversation after the informal1 talks of 27 June Colonel Sunarso elaborated on what he had said in the meeting about Portuguese Timor. The most interesting point he made was that when the Governor of Nusa Tenggara Timor, El Tari, visited Dili in March this year, a number of the tribal leaders there had privately asked him to become Governor of a united Timor within Indonesia. El Tari had naturally not responded to this proposal.

  1. I asked Sunarso whether BAKIN took this as an indication of significant indigenous support in Portuguese Timor for incorporation into Indonesia. Sunarso said they did not: they doubted that the tribal leaders were representative of the people as a whole. If a referendum were to be held now, BAKIN judged that the result would favour independence.
  2. BAKIN found it impossible to predict how attitudes might develop in the interval before the referendum either in March next year or later. It could be that the tribal chiefs would prove to be opinion makers, but equally it was possible that there could be a gulf between the educated and non-educated. A period of reflection and intensified political activity might lead the elite to see the difficulties of going it alone-but it could also see a strengthening of separatist sentiment. (Sunarso agreed wryly that the scope-and temptation-for manipulative guidance was very obvious.)
  3. Sunarso said that El Tari had been directed to maintain the levels of cordial cooperation that existed between the administrations of Portuguese and Indonesian Timor. It was still too early to tell whether there was any change of attitude on the part of the Portuguese authorities.
  4. Sunarso implied that Indonesian Consulate’s reporting from Dili left something to be desired. It was intended shortly to send a team of officials from Kupang to Dili, as part of the regular exchanges, to assess the situation. Sunarso said that in the past the Portuguese administration had gone to some lengths to prevent officials on Indonesian delegations visiting Dili from mixing with indigenous inhabitants. Delegations were invariably kept busy with a string of official calls that left no time for anything else. It would be revealing to see whether this now changed.
  5. Sunarso said that one of the difficulties about incorporating Portuguese Timor into Indonesia was the status it would have to be given. There were indications that Portuguese Timor would expect to be a province in its own right. The alternative of adding Portuguese Timor to the existing province of Nusa Tenggara Timor might not be acceptable to Portuguese Timor, which might expect some special recognition of its status. The creation of a new province consisting of Portuguese Timor alone might lead to resentment in Indonesian Timor, which formed only part of the province of Nusa Tenggara Timor, along with the islands of Flores and Sumba. Apart from the political problems, such an arrangement could cause resentment on financial grounds if the new province received assistance from Jakarta equal to that granted to the whole of Nusa Tenggara Timor. Sunarso agreed that it was even possible that Portuguese Timor might attempt to negotiate favourable financial terms as a precondition for agreeing to join Indonesia.
  6. Sunarso referred to the fact that Portuguese Timor would almost certainly be a financial liability. I asked Sunarso how this consideration was weighed against the benefits that absorption would bring in the form of greatly reducing political and strategic uncertainties in Portuguese Timor. Sunarso replied that the latter considerations were overriding: the financial burden would be unfortunate but a small price for the potential problems a takeover would help avoid.
  7. I asked Sunarso whether there were any indications of a movement favouring an independent united Timor. He said that some such feeling existed in Portuguese Timor, but that there was no evidence whatever of such thinking in Indonesian Timor. I then asked Sunarso whether Indonesia had taken into account the possible effect that a unified Timor might have elsewhere, especially Irian Jaya. Sunarso replied that the Indonesian authorities were concerned about possible separatist pressures in Irian Jaya, but BAKIN had not as yet given thought to how developments in Portuguese Timor could affect Irian Jaya.
  8. Sunarso said that BAKIN was expecting a report on Portuguese Timor in the next few days, and that they would like to discuss it with us. Sunarso’s comments about the constitutional problems of creating a new province would seem to indicate that Indonesian thinking on the possibility of taking over Portuguese Timor is well advanced, to the point of ascertaining likely local Indonesian reactions in the immediate area.
  9. A copy of this memorandum is being sent to Lisbon.2


First Secretary

[NAA: Al0463, 801/13/11/1, ii]

  • 1 Less than half a line has been expunged here.
  • 2 In a letter to McLennan on 2 July Arriens commented on this memorandum: ‘It is difficult to substantiate this, but I have a feeling in my bones that the Indonesians are going to find interference in Portuguese Timor irresistible. They will see too many dangers in allowing matters to develop naturally: at the very least they will wish to be able to interfere if things look like going wrong. Obviously they are going to watch matters very closely, and this will include resort to secret sources of information. If they cannot be confident of an outcome favourable to Indonesia’s interests, I cannot see how they would resist the temptation to interfere in such a malleable society-there are obvious parallels with Irian Jaya … Portuguese Timor is simply too important to them to take a chance.
    ‘We can, however, be assured that anything they do would be done very discreetly: the one consideration that holds them back is the fear of appearing expansionist. We may expect, therefore, that Indonesia will wish to draw on our intelligence as far as possible, and that the Indonesians may wish to build up a close degree of cooperation which could, in due course, include some delicate diplomatic manoeuvring on our part.’