Subject: AGE: China intervention in Timor feared

The Age

China intervention in Timor feared

Russell Skelton, Canberra

January 1, 2007

THE Fraser cabinet was warned by a powerful committee of defence chiefs that a prolonged war of independence by Fretilin rebels could lead to intervention by Vietnam or China in East Timor.

A national intelligence assessment, presented to cabinet two months after Indonesia's brutal incorporation of East Timor, urged the Government to mollify Indonesian interests, saying Timorese self-determination was an unrealistic goal.

The 26-page document, which clearly shaped Timor policy, took no account of rights abuses or the problem of 140,000 displaced Timorese.

Instead the assessment said: "It would not be in Australia's strategic interests that Indonesia be frustrated in the absorption of East Timor or that the process be complicated or delayed.

"This would enhance the Fretilin group's political status and both encourage and facilitate its development of connections with countries interested in supporting it against Indonesia."

It also cautioned cabinet against becoming too closely associated with any United Nations peacekeeping force or token act of self-determination.

History shows that the assessment was well wide of the mark. On August 30, 2001, two years after voting for independence in a UN-sponsored referendum, East Timor held its first democratic elections. Despite Australia's intervention in the process, relations between Canberra and Jakarta, although strained, did not break down.

The 1976 assessment was prepared by the Defence Committee, which included the most influential figures in the defence and civilian establishment. Chaired by Sir Arthur Tange, its members included Joint Intelligence Organisation director Gordon Jockel.

Contained in the top-level analysis was a warning that China and Vietnam might come to the aid of Fretilin. The assessment said "Fretilin's hardcore leadership" had aligned itself with "national liberation" movements and was seeking aid from Beijing and Hanoi to support an armed struggle.

Concern was expressed that Indonesia could play a destabilising role in Papua New Guinea if the relationship between Canberra and Jakarta were allowed to sour over Timor.

The committee's assessment also included a document drafted by Jockel, as chairman of the National Intelligence Committee, which reveals the Australian public was kept in the dark about Indonesia's secret activities in Timor in the lead-up to the armed takeover of the former Portuguese colony. Australian intelligence knew the following:

A year before Indonesia's 1975 invasion of East Timor, President Soeharto had approved the introduction of special forces into Timor and was planning covert options for military intervention.

Indonesia already had 2500 troops in East Timor almost eight weeks before Fretilin's unilateral declaration of independence on November 28, 1975, which Jakarta used to justify its invasion.

By February 1976 some 200 Indonesian troops had been killed along with 600 Fretilin resistance fighters. The fighting had displaced more than 100,000 people and created more than 40,000 refugees.

Despite these facts, the Fraser government accepted the advice that Jakarta would eventually pacify East Timor and there was little Australia could do.

In the unlikely event that a Fretilin government did emerge, the intelligence committee believed it would be "poor and weak" and would promote regional instability.

On February 9, cabinet decided to continue former prime minister Gough Whitlam's policy of bowing to Indonesian interests by not pressing for Timorese self-determination. Cabinet, fearful that Australia could become a base for a Fretilin government in exile, also ordered a crackdown on the group's activities and visits.

Cabinet decision 200 said in part: "In respect of the possible involvement in any eventual process of self-determination for the people in East Timor, the (Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee of Cabinet) agreed not to take any decisions at this stage …"

The thrust of the intelligence advice presented to cabinet concerned the need to preserve Australian interests, which meant keeping Soeharto in power and the relationship with Indonesia on a sound footing. There was concern that a hard-line group of generals could emerge to topple Soeharto, replacing him with a more "combative leader".

The Defence Committee said that from a strategic point of view it shared Indonesia's concerns about East Timor's future, but it did not accept the concerns were urgent enough to have ruled out political handling of the situation or warranted seizure of territory by force.

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