Minute from Miller to Renouf

Canberra, 17 September 1975


Portuguese Timor

At the press meeting this morning you foreshadowed that at your press briefing next week you would try to get your audience to appreciate the Government’s dilemma in having to steer a course between its attachment to self-determination and the fact that the only realistic course is for Portuguese Timor to be incorporated into Indonesia.

  1. I think you should expect to be questioned hard, and by others than Juddery, about the latter point.
  2. In this regard the attached papers, which Mr Cottrill and I prepared at the end of last week, may be of use as indicating some lines of question or comment you may encounter.
  3. Mr Cottrill’s paper’ questioned the damage which would be done to Indonesia by an independent East Timor; mine canvassed whether we should now be considering urging the Indonesians to ask themselves one last time whether they really can not live with such a thing. Mr Rowland thought we should let the situation clarify a bit more before considering whether we had come to such a point.
  4. (In regard to that we can argue in two ways:- 1. that in the meantime the Indonesians are engaged covertly in trying to bring the de facto Fretilin administration down; but 2. if that administration can not stand the very limited pressure the Indonesians have so far used it may as well fall now as later. The question will become sharper for us if/as the Indonesians increase their activities.)



12 September 1975


Portuguese Timor

Another aspect that some thought might be given to today is the question of what we say about, and even how we regard, the proposition that the journalists will almost certainly bring back from their visit to Timor, namely that Fretilin is in effective control, that a peaceful handover of power to Fretilin in Timor is possible, and should we not support and work for that.

  1. Yesterday in the Senate Senator Wriedt in fact said that the Australian Government would wish to see the Timorese people determine their own political future without interference by anybody else.
  2. The record of the South-East Asian Heads of Mission meeting records the Minister as noting that Indonesia might find, on examination, that an independent Timor could be lived with.2
  3. On the other hand telegram O.CH2643723 containing instructions for discussion with Santos strongly attacks the idea of a hand-over by Portugal to Fretilin, saying in part that a process of de-colonisation taking account of the views of all three Timorese parties ‘is the only path that offers any prospect of a stable settlement’.
  4. It is of course hard to assess imperfect information, but there do seem to be indications that Fretilin’s claims are not so wide of the mark. In these circumstances I take it that the force of ‘stable’ in the preceding paragraph is ‘that Indonesia would accept’.
  5. I must say I find some of the arguments in the remainder of telegram O.CH264372 not very convincing. Probably the majority of nations have been formed as the result of struggles between contending groups-and, in the case of former colonial territories, against the former colonial power. While an independent East Timor would have only 600,000 people Luxembourg, which is to provide this year’s President of the General Assembly (a fact which could have some significance) has only 350,000. An independent East Timor would require continued external financial assistance, but so will PNG. And while the existence of a pro-Communist element in Fretilin may be of concern to Indonesia need it be of such concern to us-given our relationships with China, the Soviet Union, and the communist countries of Indo-China? If we judge that what the Age calls ‘geographic and economic logic’ will always keep an independent East Timor responsive to Indonesia’s concerns, need we choose to give greater weight to what we would regard as exaggerated Indonesian fears?
  6. In this regard the attached note by Mr Cottrill is of interest.4
  7. Leaving aside the prospect of our participating in an international force, which seems to have receded, the policy choices before the Department now appear to boil down to two-either simply await events, which could include overt Indonesian intervention in East Timor, or attempt to influence events in favour of Indonesia accepting, with whatever concessions, guarantees and safeguards it can obtain, the prospect of a Fretilin-dominated independent East Timor.
  8. The advantages of the former course include keeping ourselves more detached from events, about which we have to rely on second-hand information, and making more likely Indonesian intervention which, if successful, would mean a neat solution to the East Timor problem, and remove the prospect of the territory becoming a real or imagined focus for communist subversion in the East Indonesia/PNG area.
  9. The disadvantages of this course are that in so far as it consciously encourages Indonesian intervention it is indefensible in terms of the Government’s stated policies and principles, and that Indonesian intervention may lead to a protracted struggle which will distract Indonesian attention from more important tasks and opportunities, distort its perceptions, and harm it internationally in both general (the United Nations) and particular (the United States) ways. After all, and despite Goa, India, another ex-colonial heir to an imperial tradition, has adapted well enough to co-existence with a number of small, sometimes difficult neighbours who are de facto part-independent/part-client.
  10. The great advantage of the latter course is that a recognition that Fretilin has established itself as the dominant influence in East Timor would appear to accord with reality, and the distinguishing mark of the Government’s foreign policies since its election, and a point of success, has been its readiness to accept realities.
  11. The greatest disadvantage of that course is that we can of course not be sure that an independent East Timor would be domesticatable, and that it might tum into ‘the Cuba of the South Seas’. If it did, and we had urged moderation on the Indonesians, they would blame us for bad advice, but it is hard to see the situation ever developing beyond repair by the use of Indonesian armed force if necessary.
  12. Earlier, when the Portuguese left Dili in disarray leaving a situation of violence and confusion behind them, the international community would probably have accepted and even welcomed Indonesian intervention to restore order, and would have accepted the implication that Indonesia would also thereby get a large say in what would happen to the territory in future. Now the situation has changed, and the need for such a step to restore something like normal conditions in East Timor is something which, to say the least, it would not be easy to establish.
  13. The Indonesians have, shrewdly, compromised us by making sure that we know their plans for covert intervention in some detail; but, as Woolcott points out in para 9 of his O.JA1758,5 Suharto ‘might still, if he chose to do so, change course again and seek some accommodation with the moderate group in Fretilin’. Woolcott thinks this is unlikely, and would be a feat of great political dexterity, but he does not rule it out. (He also cautions us against burning our bridges while the Indonesians are changing horses-presumably in mid-stream!)
  14. You said this morning we should not white-wash the Indonesians. I think that, as we have said throughout, after the Indonesians have made their decisions, whatever they are, we should work to minimise damage to Australian/Indonesian relations, to the greatest extent domestic political considerations allow. But, just as we have played a part in forming those decisions in the past, by declining to give a green light to overt intervention in East Timor at a time much more propitious than the present, so now we should consider privately urging the Indonesians to consider whether the problems of accepting the prospect of Fretilin dominating an independent East Timor would not be less than the problems of seeking to prevent this, and in effect setting out to deny what appear to be the realities of the situation.

[NAA: Al838, 3038/1011, xxxi]

  • 1 Dated 11 September.
  • 2 In introductory remarks to the meeting (held from 7 to 9 July) Willesee had predicted ‘serious short term difficulties’ in relations with Indonesia over Portuguese Timor, acknowledging that Indonesian policy was to gain control over the territory ‘by whatever means are available’. Australia must ‘face the situation where Indonesia is proceeding in a manner contrary to Australian policy and expressed views. Australia is presented with a conflict of interests. Although high priority … must be accorded the preservation of good relations with Indonesia, Australia is committed to the principle of self-determination’. Hence all diplomatic avenues should be explored in order to emphasise that Australia could not condone the use of military force against Portuguese Timor, that consideration of an annexation in international forums could place a serious strain of the bilateral relationship, and that Indonesia might find that an independent Timor could be lived with. He concluded, however, that if Indonesia did absorb the territory, Australia’s interests would be ‘to minimise to the greatest extent compatible with our convictions … the damage to our bilateral relations’. [On file NAA: A7824, 113/9, i.]
  • 3 See Document 217, and note 6 thereto.
  • 4 Cottrill argued that Timor’s value to major powers was slight, and that no other country would attach as much importance to it as did Indonesia. No significant threat to Indonesia could be mounted from Timor without involvement of a major power, which seemed unlikely. He acknowledged that a Fretilin-dominated East Timor would be an unstable and unsettling element in the region: concerns over possible communist influence and apprehensions of possible great power interference were likely to be transmitted to other ASEAN countries. A more difficult situation would develop if Indonesian forces, after an invasion, were to become bogged down in a long drawn out anti-guerrilla campaign, leading to ‘speculative external interference’. Indonesia’s sense of threat and possible desire to find a scapegoat might then have wide repercussions in the region, including damage to bilateral relations with Australia.
  • 5 Document 221.