Subject: CT Gough got gamble wrong in '75

The Canberra Times December 18, 2000, Monday Edition

East Timor: Gough got gamble wrong; The record shows former Australian Prime Minister Whitlam miscalculated that the Timorese could be manipulated into accepting integration with Indonesia, says PAUL MONK.

THERE is a great deal to be learned, in present circumstances, from close study of the mass of documents on East Timor declassified by the Government in September this year. Among other things, these documents show that Australian policy was closely controlled by the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam; that he exceeded his brief in the talks he had with President Suharto; and that, in doing so, he took a gamble which did not pay off.

He gambled that the Timorese could be manipulated by an Indonesian covert operation into accepting integration into Indonesia. He knew what he was doing, but he got it wrong.

This country, its relationship with Indonesia, the Indonesians themselves and the people of East Timor all suffered the consequences of this miscalculation. Given that we are, more than ever before, faced with the need for responsible and imaginative foreign and security policy-making in regard to the island regions around us, we need to reflect very searchingly on how this happened and on its implications.

Whitlam's policy failed because it was based on two incompatible desiderata, but even more because it had no traction; no "grip" on the complex realities it was intended to deal with.

The two desiderata were, of course, that Portuguese Timor be incorporated into Indonesia and that this be done by a genuine act of self- determination on the part of the people of the territory. For the policy to have any "traction" in regard to the first desideratum, however, the second needed to be open-ended. Otherwise the road was open to eventual use of force by Indonesia, with or without Australia's endorsement.

Whitlam's advisers suggested explicitly, before his first round of talks in Jogjakarta and Wonosobo with President Suharto, in September 1974, that he build this into what he said. He did not.

He told the Indonesian President grandiloquently that he personally believed Portuguese Timor should be part of Indonesia and that what he believed normally became Australian Government policy. It had not in this case, but it soon would, he said.

The briefing papers for those talks were prepared at the Department of Foreign Affairs by Graham Feakes, then First Assistant Secretary South East Asia and PNG. When a copy of them was sent, belatedly, to Ambassador Bob Furlonger in Jakarta, he wrote on his file copy: "This was all very cautious and rather different from the line the PM actually took." Indeed so.

Perhaps it might be suggested that such is the privilege of Prime Ministers, but with the privilege comes responsibility.

Whitlam, in this matter as in quite a few others, seems unwilling to accept responsibility for the failure of his policy. Yet it did fail and now that we have access to the long-classified records on how his policy was informed and formulated, we can see that the failure was not something unforeseeable, uncontrollable or outside the Prime Minister's domain of responsibility.

The failure was almost guaranteed by the flaws in the policy itself and he personally set those flaws in place.

Two months before Whitlam went to talk with President Suharto, Harry Tjan, a principal of the then quite new and highly influential Jakarta think tank, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, gave Jan Arriens, First Secretary in the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, a remarkable secret briefing.

He told Arriens that he was preparing a paper for President Suharto " recommending that Indonesia mount a clandestine operation in Portuguese Timor to ensure that the territory would opt for incorporation into Indonesia."

In doing so, he mentioned that he had, the previous week, discussed the possibility of Indonesian/Australian diplomatic cooperation on the matter of Portuguese Timor with Whitlam's private secretary, Peter Wilenski.

In transmitting a summary of this briefing to Canberra, Ambassador Furlonger remarked that the Indonesians had clearly decided to take the opportunity afforded by close intelligence links with Australia "to take us along on a Realpolitik approach to the problem."

He commented, "We are, in effect, being consulted. They clearly expect a response from our side: a failure to do so soon will be taken by them, I fear, as tacit agreement." Whitlam was informed of this very specifically. At Wonosobo he gave President Suharto his "tacit agreement".

It needs to be clearly understood that, to that point, the Indonesian leader had not made up his mind how to proceed in regard to Portuguese Timor. For over a year afterwards, he remained reluctant to use force to intervene there.

The tacit deal struck between the two leaders in September 1974 was, in effect, that a "West Irian solution" would ensure incorporation of Portuguese Timor into Indonesia, while having all the appearances of a "genuine" act of self-determination.

WITHIN weeks of the Wonosobo talks, the Indonesian leadership around President Suharto took the decision to proceed with Harry Tjan's covert plan. How do we know? Harry Tjan told the Embassy in detail.

He told Jan Arriens on September 30 that he had now developed a "grand design" on the future of Portuguese Timor, which had been submitted to the President. Indonesia would gain "legal access" to Portuguese Timor, put its operation in place, invite the United Nations to come in and inspect things on the ground and then, as early as 1975 but not later than 1976, hold a referendum, "the result of which would be ensured by the territory's exposure to Indonesian influence."

How did Harry Tjan expect Indonesian influence to take effect so quickly within a year or two after 450 years of Portuguese rule? And what if the Timorese proved resistant to such influence? From an Australian point of view, these should have been fundamental considerations.

By December 1974, some of the more thoughtful people in Canberra were beginning to ponder them, but Whitlam's policy contained no provisions for inhibiting or correcting the Indonesian covert operation if it proved abortive or got out of hand.

This is not just the wisdom of hindsight. The archival documents show that such considerations occurred to Feakes and Furlonger as soon as Tjan gave his first briefing to Arriens.

Indeed, buried deep in the archives, there is a secret report called The Future of Portuguese Timor, written in early 1963 for Sir Arthur Tange by Gordon Jockel, in which all these considerations were set out lucidly. In the manner of many such reports, it seems to have lapsed from institutional memory by 1974, even though Jockel was by then director of the Joint Intelligence Organisation.

Whitlam, in any case, seems to have believed that a personal rapport between himself and the Indonesian President would be proof against the need for any such fire-walling or circumspection. Now, of course, Whitlam has maintained ever since that he was explicit in his commitment to a genuine and deliberate act of self-determination for the Timorese. The record suggests otherwise.

He committed Australia to a policy which was always going to be in serious danger of getting ground between the millstones of his two incompatible desiderata. Those two desiderata were, in sombre fact, only ever likely to be reconciled by the covert means Harry Tjan had proposed.

Just to the extent that the Timorese exhibited an unwillingness to be absorbed into Indonesia, Australia would be faced with an invidious choice between its commitment to harmonious relations with Jakarta and its principled commitment to genuine self-determination for the Timorese.

He allowed himself to believe, however, that he had what Richard Woolcott, in high-level departmental discussions on December 11, 1974, called "escape clauses" built into his policy. He didn't. No-one escaped, in the end, the consequences of his lack of caution at Jogjakarta and Wonosobo.

ONE IS left by the archival record with the distinct impression that either the Prime Minister was being tactically naive or that he was being Machiavellian. I think he would prefer the latter description, but his subtle game did not work.

He had been told that the Indonesians were contemplating a covert manipulation of the Timorese and he believed that this would provide a "West Irian solution" to the problem of Portuguese Timor, ie, an appearance of genuine self-determination.

Of course, he was mistaken if he believed that the West Irianese act of free choice had been genuine, but he believed he could live with a similar outcome in the case of Timor. He thought, however, that he was being very clever in providing himself with an alibi: the "escape clauses" Woolcott referred to.

If things went wrong, he could say that he had never endorsed the use of covert means or force. He still thinks this alibi sticks. It doesn't. The release of the hitherto classified record, though still incomplete, is very clear on this key aspect of the matter.

In June 1976, when the mess in East Timor was full-blown, Harry Tjan came to see Allan Taylor, Counsellor at the Embassy in Jakarta, for another of the long series of secret briefings that dated back to early July 1974. He told him that "Australia, with good intentions, had planted the idea that East Timor should be part of Indonesia."

Australia, Taylor responded, had not determined Indonesian policy to such an extent at all. Both were right. Australia had not. Whitlam had.

Paul Monk has recently been a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University's Institute of Advanced Studies working on the East Timor archives. This article is part of a major seminar paper delivered at ANU on December 5.

December Menu
World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu

Note: For those who would like to fax "the powers that be" - CallCenter V3.5.8, is a Native 32-bit Voice Telephony software application integrated with fax and data communications... and it's free of charge! Download from