Cablegram to Canberra

Jakarta, 3 September 1975


Portuguese Timor

For the Secretary and the Acting Minister from Woolcott

President Soeharto[’s] apparent caution and patience and Acting Foreign Minister Mochtar’s extremely dove-like comments over the last two weeks, had led a number of diplomatic observers here to the conclusion that Indonesian policy towards Timor may have changed and that Indonesia has come to the conclusion that it does not now really want to incorporate Timor.

  1. This is not so and I believe it might be useful if I try to draw from the plethora of recent cables on Timor and from the labyrinth of half-informed sources (including the Acting Foreign Minister Mochtar himself) an updated assessment of how we consider the Portuguese Timor situation will evolve over the next week or so and how we now assess likely Indonesian policy responses to this situation.
  2. To recapitulate, President Soeharto decided last year that Portuguese Timor should be integrated into Indonesia. As you know his main reasons were that it would be contrary to Indonesia’s national interests to have a very small, economically feeble independent country within the Indonesian archipelago. But the President has all along insisted that force-by which I take him to mean the use of naked force-would not be employed. General Ali Murtopo, who has been instrumental in shaping the President’s thinking on Timor, and his OPSUS (‘Special Operations’) were given the task of achieving the objective through means other than force.
  3. Throughout the events of the last three weeks in Timor Soeharto has steadfastly adhered to his decision not to use force, despite pressure from many of his senior advisers especially in HANKAM and BAKIN, many of whom (especially Generals Panggabean and Moerdani) are surprised, irritated and confused at the President’s failure to seize what they thought was an ideal opportunity to achieve the policy objective of incorporating Timor, despite the comparatively favourable international climate for unilateral Indonesian intervention. The President has maintained that Indonesian armed intervention will take place only if Portugal requests it or if Indonesian security is directly threatened. He has not defined what he would consider such a threat to be, but foremost in his mind is possible interference in Timor by a foreign country, especially the USSR or China.
  4. The President’s refusal to agree to Indonesian armed intervention in Portuguese Timor during the last three weeks against the recommendation of his senior military advisers has not hurt him. None of the evidence available to us suggests that his position is threatened. On the contrary his authority has probably been strengthened as it becomes evident to his critics that the chances of Indonesia incorporating Portuguese Timor, without incurring a loss of international standing, may have been increased by Indonesia’s inaction.
  5. The President’s argument in meetings with his senior advisers is based on the fact that Indonesia has no legitimate territorial claim to Portuguese Timor; the claim that he was elected with a mandate to develop Indonesia and that rash action in Timor would divert resources from development and possibly prejudice the flow of foreign economic assistance to Indonesia; and that Indonesia should avoid any action which smacked of Sukarno’s adventurist foreign policy. We know he continues to have in mind the importance of preventing action which might threaten the supply of military equipment from the United States or which could create tensions between Indonesia and Australia. Our contacts have stressed the importance the President places on Indonesia being seen to be ‘clean’.
  6. But President Soeharto has not been diverted from the policy objective that Portuguese Timor should be incorporated into Indonesia. We believe the President is aware of Murtopo’s plans for and activities in Portuguese Timor which are proceeding apace. The President is acting skillfully and shrewdly, more, in fact, like a Javanese statesman than a general. On the one hand he is refusing to be drawn into intervening militarily in Portuguese Timor and risking international opprobrium, even though it would be muted in the present circumstances. Through Acting Foreign Minister Mochtar (who I understand is not aware of the covert operations in Timor) the picture of Indonesia as diplomatically patient, clean and helpful is conveyed to the world. On the other hand Indonesia proceeds to arrange covertly for the incorporation of Portuguese Timor.

Future Developments

  1. I think that developments in the near future could take one of two courses.
  2. First, Portugal could invite Indonesia to intervene to restore peace and order in the hope that the decolonisation process would be completed. For Indonesia to accept, such an invitation would have to be in terms of the draft memorandum already discussed with Santos (JA15381 ) and the draft terms of reference for the joint authority (JA1575).2 President Soeharto has approved that the approach set out in those drafts be put to Santos on what is virtually a ‘take it or leave it’ basis. Mochtar has been instructed to take a firm line with Santos when the latter returns to Jakarta. Given Cooper’s comments from Lisbon, the present Portuguese Government’s deep suspicion of Indonesia and Santos’ position and attitudes as expressed here and in Canberra, there is very little chance of agreement between Indonesia and Portugal on Indonesian intervention.
  3. From Indonesia’s point of view it is important that their hands are not tied during the restoration of peace and order phase of any intervention, which they estimate could take about two months. They would, of course, use this period to arrange for a pro-integration result in the following decolonisation process.
  4. The second-and most likely scenario, given the dim prospects for Portuguese-Indonesian agreement–envisages a continuation and extension of Indonesia’s covert activities adapted to account for recent developments in Timor, the timing of which, if not their nature, surprised the Indonesians.
  5. We now have from Lim Bian Kie (Murtopo’s Private Secretary) and Tjan (CSIS) a detailed account of Indonesia’s planning in this respect.3 This information is regarded by the Indonesians as ‘top secret’ and should be protected absolutely. It normally would not have been passed to us and has been so that there will be no misunderstanding or misinterpretation at the highest levels in Australia of Indonesian policy.
  6. A major development is that the Indonesians have acquired the allegiance of important UDT elements including the UDT President Lopes da Cruz. For the purposes of OPSUS planning it is sufficient to have the support of a part of UDT only.
  7. The present OPSUS plan assumes Fretilin will get full control of Dili and declare independence. Indonesia would then demand that Portugal restore the Macao decolonisation program and honour the understandings reached at the secret bilateral talks in London and Hong Kong. UDT President Lopes da Cruz (now in Maliana) would announce that the UDT supported integration with Indonesia and request Indonesian assistance. A written statement to this effect from da Cruz was received by the Indonesians on 1 September. Groups (Apodeti and UDT) in other areas would come out with similar statements. Fighting between them and Fretilin would recommence (assuming it has already died down). ‘Volunteers’ and arms from Indonesia would strengthen the pro-integration forces. Efforts would also be made to cut off food supplies to Fretilin in Dili and to step up naval patrolling to intercept any arms reaching Portuguese Timor, except through Indonesia. Portugal would again be asked to restore peace and order; it would be unable to do so and Portuguese Timor would become a ‘no-man’s land’. Indonesia would still not intervene with outright force but would ensure that the pro-Indonesian UDT faction defeated Fretilin and sought integration.4
  8. The possibility of Portugal turning the Timor problem over to the United Nations does not worry Indonesia. It considers that the United Nations will be unable to act effectively even in these circumstances.
  9. It is clear that Indonesian planning is detailed and has taken account of foreseeable eventualities.
  10. The most dramatic part of the OPSUS description is, of course, the extent to which they say Indonesia controls part of UDT. They do not claim the support of the Carascaloao faction yet but consider that in time most UDT supporters will favour integration. Apodeti is now regarded virtually as a dead horse as far as Indonesia is concerned although it remains essential as the vehicle for the integrationists in the formal decolonisation process.
  11. The apparent extent of Indonesia’s contacts with the da Cruz faction of UDT may cast doubt on our previous assessment that Indonesia was not involved in the 10 August ‘show of force’. Nevertheless I do not believe that Indonesia was directly involved; it was no doubt aware that UDT was planning action against Fretilin and did not object, but the timing and nature of that action were not of an Indonesian making. The timing did not in fact suit Indonesian planning. A request by UDT to Indonesia at that time for arms was also refused.

Australian Position

  1. The Indonesian Government from the President down have made it clear that it greatly appreciates your recent statements on Timor. So far Australian/Indonesian relations have not been harmed by developments in Timor which is of course one of our main objectives. On the contrary, they have been strengthened. They would like us for presentational reasons to agree to serve on the joint authority but they will not be too upset if we do not agree. Although they now see the Santos mission as something of a charade they will go right through with it for presentational reasons and in the unlikely event that Portugal will agree in the end to their terms. They will ask New Zealand to be on the joint authority if we do not come to the party. If New Zealand declines they will with some reluctance turn to the Philippines.
  2. The OPSUS plan, if carried out successfully and reasonably quickly could achieve Indonesia’s objective without harming her international reputation, including relations with Australia. The OPSUS people are confident that it will work. One of everybody’s problems is the absence of authoritative assessments of the amount of weapons and ammunition in Portuguese Timor. We also lack authoritative information on the relative strength of Fretilin and UDT in Portuguese Timor as a whole. Part of UDT and, behind it, Indonesia, would certainly not be up against a well armed politically mature, or externally supplied movement but success could be more difficult than OPSUS considers.
  3. Unless the Portuguese invite Indonesian intervention on the terms now set out by Indonesia or unless the OPSUS operation succeeds without becoming too messy, we will be confronted with the situation which we have hoped to avoid, namely a running sore in our region of primary concern and between us and our nearest and most important neighbour. We could be faced with continued internecine strife in Portuguese Timor with Indonesia’s covert involvement becoming more apparent. This would mean continuing and increasing humanitarian assistance from Australia and possibly other countries. This could run us into problems with Indonesia if they do in fact seek to use food as a weapon against Fretilin’s control of Dili. Another danger for Australia would be support for Fretilin within the Australian community or a polarisation of support domestically along crude ‘anti-communist’ (pro UDT) versus ‘communist’ (pro Fretilin) lines. Indonesia and Malaysia will be very firmly opposed to Fretilin.
  4. I consider that our interests now would be best served by a Portuguese invitation to Indonesia to restore peace and order in Timor. Unfortunately I consider this unlikely. But if it should eventuate there are several points you might keep in mind in determining whether Australia should agree to participate in the Joint Authority. The Indonesians will seek to ensure that integration results from the decolonisation process. The early phase of their intervention to restore peace would be important for them in achieving this objective and it could become messy. If it did, the Australian Government could be placed in a difficult situation if it were represented on a body which would have some accountability for Indonesian actions, especially in the early period.
  5. In the second and more likely scenario I consider our best interests would be served by strict non-involvement outside of humanitarian assistance, understanding of Indonesia’s concern about Timor and its action, and by efforts to blunt as far as possible the recrudescence of latent hostility to Indonesia in the Australian community.
  6. Domestically, pressures against too obvious an Indonesian involvement in Portuguese Timor are sure to develop. But we should not lose sight of the fact that there is now very little likelihood of a proper act of self-determination taking place in Portuguese Timor and that Australia’s best long-term interests, as well as those of Indonesia, and possibly even those of the majority of the indigenous Timorese in East Timor, are likely to be served by the incorporation of Portuguese Timor into Indonesia.
  7. I apologise for the length of this cable but the future of Portuguese Timor is now an extremely important foreign policy issue for the Australian Government, affecting not only our long-term relationship with Indonesia but our role in the Asia and Pacific region. I decided that a comprehensive updated and considered assessment of the situation would be timely. Because of the sensitivity of paragraphs 11-18 and references in paragraphs 20 and 21 you will want to consider carefully distribution of this cable. I have not addressed it to other interested posts for that reason but perhaps the Department could prepare an edited version for distribution to interested posts.


[NAA: A10463, 801/13/11/1, xiii]

  • 1 30 August. It conveyed the draft memorandum of understanding.
  • 2 See note 1 to Document 208.
  • 3 See Document 207.
  • 4 In Cablegram JA1662 (5 September) Woolcott noted reports that Fretilin had moved more quickly than the Indonesians had anticipated to take control of some areas close to the border, and that UDT was demoralised and nearing defeat. He also noted that defeat of UDT would make it difficult for Indonesia to ensure Fretilin’s defeat without infusion of men and equipment on a scale so large as to be ‘more difficult to distinguish from outright military intervention’. A Fretilin victory would increase pressure on Soeharto to agree to outright intervention but, to Moerdani’s disappointment, on the previous evening Soeharto had said he would not so agree, even if Fretilin had the upper hand, without a Portuguese request.