Dec 02, 2022 Last Updated 6:29 AM, Nov 29, 2022

Whitlam knew

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Paul Monk

On 3 July 1974, the Australian ambassador to Jakarta, Bob Furlonger cabled Canberra:

'Harry Tjan told Jan Arriens on 2 July that he intends to submit a paper to the president this week recommending that Indonesia mount a clandestine operation in Portuguese Timor to ensure that the territory would opt for incorporation into Indonesia[Indonesian intelligence chief Lt-Gen] Ali Murtopo would appear to have directed Tjan to draft a paper setting out the operation. Tjan's extreme frankness indicates that the Indonesians are confident that we would favour an independent Portuguese Timor as little as they do.'

Jan Arriens was then first secretary in the Australian embassy in Jakarta. Harry Tjan was a principal member of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jakarta. Furlonger remarked that the Indonesians appeared to want to 'take us along on a realpolitik approach to the problem.'Australia was being consulted, he observed, and needed to respond in clear terms. 'A failure to do so soon will be taken by them, I fear, as tacit agreement.' Canberra's response to Furlonger was that the information from Tjan was most valuable, but that 'we should not encourage the Indonesians in any way to talk to us along those lines.' Australia could not afford to be associated with a covert operation given 'the risk of exposure.' Any hint of our complicity 'or even acquiescence'in such things with Indonesia would 'be damaging to the government's reputation overseas, to its domestic credibility, and to the confidence in us of small countries, especially PNG.'

Yet the Indonesians were in no way discouraged from talking to us 'along those lines.' Tjan's revelation of 2 July 1974 was the first of some forty-five secret briefings to the Australian embassy up to June 1976. Australia gave tacit agreement to the clandestine operation being mounted. It was kept closely informed about its design and its progress. It was told in detail of the obstacles encountered. Very early on, it was informed that, if covert manipulation did not work, Indonesia would foment disorder in the territory as a pretext for military intervention. Australia went along with this realpolitikapproach to the problem - at the risk of exposure. No greater risk of exposure arose than the presence of five Australian network journalists at Balibo, in mid-October 1975. That's why the Indonesian forces killed them, and why the Australian government covered up their murders.

Australia and the Indonesian Incorporation of Portuguese Timor 1974-1976, published in September 2000 by Melbourne University Press, shows the significance of these secret briefings. They were an intelligence officer's dream. To see how they were used is to understand precisely what was flawed and unworkable in the Whitlam policy on East Timor in 1974-75.


The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs told Furlonger that the danger in Indonesian planning was that 'self-interest may distort rational thinking and the assessment of risks.' This was true, however, not only in Jakarta but also in Canberra. Australia's self-interest, as its officials perceived it, lay in the inconvenient little Portuguese colony being quietly absorbed into Indonesia. It also lay in cordial relations with Indonesia, which was consolidating a 'New Order' of a broadly pro-Western and 'stable' nature. Quite as much as in Jakarta, the question was worth asking in Canberra whether self-interest might distort 'rational thinking' and 'assessment of risks.' The record suggests that it did.

The briefing notes for Whitlam's talks with President Suharto, in early September 1974, informed the Australian prime minister about Harry Tjan's plan. He was advised to tell President Suharto that self-determination for Portuguese Timor was a firm Australian policy and that such self-determination 'should not exclude any of the three future options for Portuguese Timor', ie sustained links with Portugal, incorporation into Indonesia, or independence. A more 'forward' policy than this on Indonesia's part would present problems for Australia's other interests.

Whitlam chose not to accept the guidance offered to him. He told Suharto that he personally believed Portuguese Timor should be part of Indonesia. This was not yet Australian policy, he said, but his views tended to become Australian policy and they soon would in this case. He added that incorporation should take place as the result of a genuine act of self-determination on the part of the Timorese. He knew that this was not what the Indonesians had in mind, but said nothing to the Indonesian leader about the advisability of a clandestine operation. Suharto took this to mean that Whitlam would align Australia's policy with his own.

Australian policy was now caught between two incompatible considerations that were only ever likely to be reconciled by the means Tjan had proposed, at the risk of exposure and failure foreseen by thoughtful Australian officials from the outset. Just to the extent that the Timorese exhibited an unwillingness to be absorbed into Indonesia, Australia would be faced with an invidious choice between the two incompatible halves of Whitlam's policy. This soon became crystal clear. On 30 September 1974, Tjan told Arriens that 'he had now developed a "grand design" on the future of Portuguese Timor, which had been submitted to the president.' This 'grand design' called for resolution of the matter in the course of 1975-76.

If Whitlam wished to see a genuine act of self-determination he now knew that this was not what Jakarta intended. To deflect the Indonesians from their realpolitik course at this point would have required pro-active diplomacy. This was not forthcoming from Whitlam or from his Department of Foreign Affairs. Not to initiate such efforts at that point was clearly to acquiesce in the 'grand design'.

On 16 October 1974, Furlonger sent a Secret Austeo (Australian Eyes Only) cable to Canberra summarising a conversation he had had with Lim Bian Kie, private secretary to Ali Murtopo. Lim had stated, he said, that if Indonesia could not influence matters decisively within eighteen months it would be 'unable to do so at all.' If it was clear by 1976, Lim said, that the Timorese would not vote for incorporation into Indonesia then 'the use of force could not be ruled out.' Harry Tjan confirmed this. Lim 'spoke of the possibility of fomenting disorder in Portuguese Timor and of the Indonesian forces stepping in to salvage the situation at the request of certain sections of the population.'

Military intervention

Seldom do governments get such clear intelligence on the thoughts and intentions of other governments in sensitive matters. Canberra had been told explicitly that Jakarta felt a sense of urgency, that it was not actually optimistic about its covert action having the desired effect in the brief time available, and that it would resort to military intervention, if need be, in order to have its way. In other words, the Whitlam policy was clearly non-viable.

This ominous outlook was reinforced on 26 October, when Tjan again met with Arriens. He told him that Murtopo had been replaced by Lt-Gen Benny Murdani as real operational chief of the 'grand design', that the latter had hardened into agreed policy, and that Indonesian 'determination to take over Portuguese Timor had now developed an almost irresistible momentum.' If Canberra had been at all serious about self-determination for Portuguese Timor then this was the time to make a stand. Late October 1974, not October 1975, was the end of the line for the policy Whitlam had espoused.

Whitlam failed to see this, however. He was too convinced of his own grand vision to heed the views of the people of East Timor - or Australia - in this matter. He had prime responsibility for the dilemma Australian policy now faced. He was fully briefed, but did not see a need to modify his policy. He wanted to see incorporation take place - by an act of 'genuine self-determination'. He persisted in believing that this was compatible with the 'grand design'. The policy, therefore, remained set on autopilot, as Australia flew with Indonesia towards the bloody invasion on 7 December 1975.

By early December 1974, Australia's most senior policy makers and intelligence officers were aware that the Timorese were unlikely to prove 'malleable', as Michael Cook put it at a top level meeting, and that voluntary incorporation was 'not a winnable goal.' Gordon Jockel, director of the Joint Intelligence Organisation, told the same meeting that intelligence estimates suggested Fretilin could and would stoutly resist an Indonesian military intervention and that an effort to crush it could become 'a running sore' for Indonesia. Richard Woolcott, soon to become ambassador to Indonesia, thought Jockel and Cook were being too pessimistic. Besides, he told the meeting, 'the prime minister wants to see incorporation take place. If things get messy he has escape clauses.'

Whitlam did not have escape clauses. His personal conceit had left the Labor Party, and government, with a policy heading inescapably for disaster. Over the twelve months that followed, Tjan kept the Australian embassy closely informed as that disaster unfolded. In its wake, Canberra chose to try to make the best of a bad job by suppressing evidence of the extent of the catastrophe. But truth will out. The recently declassified documents make clear how a devastating policy error was made. What has not yet been declassified is the defence and intelligence archive on the details of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. That remains suppressed, because the truth is so damning.

Dr Paul Monk ( is senior fellow with the Australian Thinking Skills Institute ( He is a former senior defence intelligence analyst. A longer version of this article appears in Critical Asian Studies vol.33 no.2, April 2001 (

Inside Indonesia 68: Oct - Dec 2001

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