Companion to East Timor - De facto recognition

De facto recognition

Under Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock, Australia responded to the occupation by providing de facto recognition of Indonesian rule over East Timor. Indonesia had planned to announce that it had integrated East Timor as its 27th province on its independence day, 17th August 1976. But Australia requested it to bring the date forward to the Australian Parliamentary recess. It stressed to the Indonesians that 'the date of 17 August for any announcement involved them in particular embarrassment as it is the day on which Parliament is to reassemble.'

A British diplomat in the High Commission in Canberra reported back to the British Foreign Office that 'the editorials in the Sydney Morning Herald of 1 July, the Canberra Times of 20 July and the Age of 22 July, none of them in any way left-wing publications, give some idea of the distaste which persists and of how easily a false step by the Minister could provoke an outcry.' He commented that 'officials within the South-East Asia Branch [of Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs] have been living with Timor and little else for over a year.'

Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser's visit to Jakarta in 1976 presented him with a challenge, since his Indonesian hosts were keen to have him state publicly that Australia supported their takeover of East Timor. Indeed, the Indonesian Ambassador 'called on the Prime Minister before the visit to say on instructions that President Suharto would want to speak on the Timor question "as a first priority."' When Fraser arrived in Jakarta, the Speaker of the Indonesian Parliament specifically invited him to comment on Timor. But Fraser was all too aware of the Australian electorate's hostility to the takeover. Thus, in his public statements on Timor 'he merely repeated that Australia's position was well known and had been explained many times in Parliament by the Foreign Minister… One of the members of [the Indonesian] Parliament told the American Ambassador that he regarded the speech as an excellent one for the Australian public, who were its intended audience.'

Mr Alan Griffith, First Assistant Secretary in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C), confided to his British interlocutors that Foreign Minister Peacock couldn't say that he had given de facto recognition due to 'the long shadows cast by the past policies of both parties on Timor and [the way in which] the Timor issue has been and continues to be a party political football. The policy makers of both parties have indulged in tortuous somersaults and the accusations of moral turpitude, from either side of the House, have a strong lining of humbug. … There was some attempt to clear the ground with the closure of the Fretilin transmitter, the prosecution of the owner and crew of a boat which tried to leave Darwin for East Timor and the generous offers of humanitarian aid to be channelled through the Indonesian Red Cross. …But Timor seems to have overshadowed everything else again.'

In Fraser's meeting with Suharto in Jakarta in October 1976, Fraser had asked for 'understanding of Australia's difficulties in formally accepting integration and for time to overcome these… Hence, supply boats organised by pro-Fretilin groups were prevented from leaving Australian waters; attempts were made (with less success) to close off Fretilin's radio-link with the Northern Territory; and most recently Ramos-Horta, the Fretilin UN Representative, was refused a visa to visit Australia…'

Australian newspapers reported that Indonesian Foreign Minister Adam Malik had claimed that Mr Fraser 'had reached a secret understanding on Timor with President Suharto during his visit…' According to Griffiths, Fraser 'had been so angry that he had almost blown Mr Griffith's head off. Mr Griffth commented that Mr Fraser detested Mr Malik (he said also that Mr Malik had not in fact been in Jakarta during Mr Fraser's visit). Mr Griffith asked could not someone tell the Indonesians to be quiet about Timor. What Australian/Indonesian relations needed was a couple of months of peace on East Timor… Mr Griffith had some acid personal comments on the Australian Ambassador to Jakarta, Mr Woolcott. He said Mr Woolcott had contributed nothing on policy for the visit; he was a PR man and Mr Fraser had no regard for him.'

So concerned was the Fraser government about the Australian public's hostility that Alf Parsons, First Assistant Secretary in the Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea division of the Department of Foreign Affairs, said privately that the Department 'had been avoiding getting formal legal advice on the question of de facto recognition of the incorporation of East Timor in Indonesia, for fear of getting an embarrassing answer which would make it difficult to sustain the declared policy of the Australian government.' When Australia abstained from the vote in the Fourth Committee, the news of the abstention, according to British diplomats, 'came through early that morning (the AM comment program carried it as a news flash like a cricket score: 61 for 18 against 49 abstentions). As soon as Mr Peacock had finished his set address, the first questions put to him were about Timor and the reason for the Australian abstention.'

By 1978, however, policymakers assessed that the political conditions would permit de facto recognition. According to a Cabinet Minute dated 17th January 1978, Decision No. 4485 recommended to Cabinet that 'on an early occasion the Government [should] announce that it fully accepts the reality that East Timor is part of Indonesia and that all future Government action [will] be based on the acceptance of the proposition that Indonesia exercises sovereign power so far as that territory is concerned...' It was able to do this because 'the volume of letters being received about Timor has dropped substantially over the past six months. It is currently running at the rate of about seven a month. This has been accompanied by a falling newspaper and television interest…' Accordingly, on 20th January 1978 Andrew Peacock announced that 'the Government has decided to accept East Timor as part of Indonesia… Since November 1975 the Indonesian Government has continued to extend its administrative control over the territory of East Timor. This control is effective and covers all major administrative centres of the territory… This is a reality with which we must come to terms.'

Peacock was acutely aware of public opposition to this decision even at this time. According to Alan Griffith of PM&C and David Wilson, the First Assistant Secretary for South East Asia in the DFA:

Officials had for months been seeking to find the right opportunity to get Ministers to announce Australia's acceptance of the position in East Timor… Mr Peacock had on each occasion thought that the timing was politically not right. Mr Peacock had apparently almost been ready to take the step later last year but the announcement of the election had intervened and the matter had been shelved during the campaign. Officials raised the question again a couple of weeks ago and, though Mr Peacock is said to have been extremely nervous right to the end, Cabinet decided at its meeting on 17 January to go ahead. Wilson said that because of past leaks of information on Timor the matter had been held extremely close; no more than six senior officials in the DFA had known about the move almost up to the time of the issue of the statement... the Head of the DFA's Indonesian Section himself only found out in the middle of last week… Wilson said that the Indonesian Government had been informed of the proposed announcement late last week; only then was the Australian Ambassador in Jakarta brought into the picture. Again, as few people as possible were in the know, possibly only the Acting Foreign Minister Mochtar and the Political Head of the Indonesian Foreign Ministry, Darusman.