Cablegram to Canberra

Jakarta, 6 December 1975


Portuguese Timor

The Timor situation has entered a decisive phase.


  1. Sinaga, the influential and well-informed personal assistant to Defence Minister Panggabean, confirmed to me last night that action against Dili was likely to start tonight, 6 December or not later than Monday 8 December. He said Indonesia would give the four anti­-Fretilin forces the assistance they needed. Sinaga said that given the way the situation had developed following Fretilin’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence this was the best course. There would be less casualties, less disruption and less likelihood of outside interference if the situation was dealt with ‘quickly’ and ‘not permitted to drag on’. Sinaga added that Indonesia looked to Australia for ‘understanding’ and said that he hoped this would be forthcoming from countries like Australia and New Zealand in addition to the ASEAN countries.
  2. The incoming Government will certainly be faced with difficult policy questions which will have consequences for the future of Australia’s relations with Indonesia, when it comes to office after the 13 December. Given the way in which the situation is evolving now however, the Minister may wish to make a statement shortly. If so I would suggest that any statement be based on the following facts or well-substantiated assessments.
  3. Firstly, and most important, Indonesia is now bent on immediate action to secure incorporation of East Timor. Its earlier hopes of achieving its objective by influencing a more or less internationally acceptable act of self-determination were set back by the UDT ‘show of force’ in August and the breakdown of Portugal’s decolonisation program and dashed finally by Fretilin’s declaration of independence. In these circumstances Indonesia will provide adequate military assistance to the anti-Fretilin forces to ensure that its objectives are obtained.
  4. Indonesia is fully committed to this course. Although it hopes to avoid it, it will not be deterred by a hostile Australian reaction or by the attitudes of radical and former Portuguese African countries remote from South East Asia because it believes its long term national interests are involved. It will look to the Australian Government-both caretaker and incoming—for ‘understanding’ of the position in which it finds itself and for an effort to blunt the further growth of anti-Indonesian feeling in Australia in the long term interests of both countries.
  5. Secondly, Indonesia, although its involvement will be obvious, will seek to achieve its objectives as ‘properly’ and ‘legally’ as possible in the circumstances. When Fretilin has crumbled or been defeated and the territory pacified there will be an act of self-determination or free choice. A United Nations visiting mission may well be permitted to visit. We should be under no illusions, however, about the result of any act of self-determination. While trying to make it look as genuine as possible, the Indonesians will want to ensure that the outcome is integration.
  6. Thirdly, as far as we can tell from here the other ASEAN countries support Indonesia’s objective of incorporation and are opposed to an independent East Timor within the ASEAN area. Some accept Indonesian military involvement, overt or covert, if this is considered necessary by Indonesia to achieve its objective. None wants a weak, potentially radical, independent trouble-spot within the ASEAN region and none would want membership of ASEAN for an independent East Timor.
  7. If he makes a statement the Minister will presumably need to repeat Australia’s opposition to the use of force and emphasise the caretaker government’s active efforts in the brief period since it took office to secure a negotiated settlement on the basis of self-determination. That said, the Minister might also make some understanding reference to Indonesia’s very real concerns including the 40,000 refugees, as it sees them and Australia’s understanding of these concerns.
  8. The Minister could also urge Indonesia to use its influence with the anti-Fretilin parties to avoid bloodshed. If the Indonesians have publicly admitted their military involvement at the time of any ministerial statement, the Minister might call on Indonesia to take what steps it can to ensure that an act of self-determination is conducted and that the United Nations be associated in some way with this act.
  9. The Minister might stress the point that Australia cannot act in isolation. It is geographically a part of the South East Asian region and is trying where possible to coordinate its approach to regional issues with the countries of the region.
  10. The Minister could also make the point in response to any ‘blood on Australia’s hands’ allegations that Fretilin must bear much of the responsibility for the present situation. It should have sought an accommodation with its large and powerful neighbour in the first place and those who discouraged it from this course in the early days ultimately did the party a disservice. Fretilin had been led to believe that it could pursue a policy contrary to Indonesia’s national interests and ultimately to the folly of the UDI which triggered off the present situation.
  11. The Minister could make the point that while Australia holds strongly to the view that an act of self-determination can still take place, there is no intrinsic reason why the indigenous people of East Timor would not in the long run be as well off and free within the Indonesian Republic as they would be as a brittle and divided state. Timor has been artificially divided by its colonial history and ethnically, culturally and even by religion the East Timorese have much in common with the West Timorese. (For obvious reasons this argument is not applicable to New Guinea.)
  12. The Minister might also consider making the point that while Indonesia’s fears of an Angolan type situation or of a communist beachhead established in the Indonesian Archipelago may be exaggerated, Indonesia believes its long term security and stability for which it has fought for many years, are at stake. It is not really for Australia to say that Indonesia’s concerns are groundless. Who can predict what the situation in an independent East Timor might be in 1980?
  13. The Indonesians, while understanding domestic pressures in Australia especially in the middle of an election campaign, will be looking to the present Government, as they looked to its predecessor, to adopt as helpful and as understanding a position as possible in the interests of the long-term relationship between the two countries.
  14. Underlying our Timor policy has been the great importance the Government and its predecessor places on relations with Indonesia. Our wish to maintain close relations with Indonesia has been conveyed to President Soeharto by both the caretaker Government and its predecessor and indeed by the McMahon Government before that.
  15. We are in fact faced with related choices which we hope to avoid, namely our relations with Indonesia and integration on the one hand and, alternatively, support for Fretilin and moral objections to Indonesia’s means on the other hand. In effect the Government faces one ofthose issues which Governments frequently face in the conduct of their foreign relations; a choice between a pragmatic and realistic acceptance of what is going to happen and our longer term national interest, on the one hand, and on the other, a moral and principled stand about the means to the accepted end which might ease our national conscience but which is unlikely to have an effect on what actually happens and which would erode our relations with Indonesia. It is really a choice between a pragmatic realistic position and a principled but ineffective posture.

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