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AUS: Howard Interview On East Timor

3 September 1999

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER

THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP

RADIO INTERVIEW WITH MATT PEACOCK

PM PROGRAMME, ABC RADIO

PEACOCK:

Prime Minister, thanks for joining PM. What did you say to Dr Habibie?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we spent about half an hour discussing the situation. I expressed my great alarm at what had occurred over the past few days. On two or three occasions I particularly expressed concern about the safety of the Australian police and the other Australians who are in East Timor and how damaging it would be to the relationship if any harm were to come to them. And I stressed that it was the responsibility of Indonesia and the Indonesian armed forces and police to restore order and maintain it because East Timor was part of Indonesia. Now, the ballot result will be known soon, precisely when is a matter for the United Nations. Dr Habibie did indicate to me that no matter what the result was he would honour it; that he believed that the people of East Timor were entitled to a free expression of view about their future and he would work very hard to ensure that full faith and credit were given to the result of the ballot.

PEACOCK:

And presumably you discussed what might happen if it was a pro-independence vote in terms of violence?

PRIME MINISTER:

We obviously canvassed a number of possible outcome and there can only be two outcomes. They either vote in favour of remaining part of Indonesia or vote for independence. I don't know. He indicated to me that he didn't know the situation. The mood, the ambience of the place seemed to be earlier this week that people were supporting independence. I suppose it's a sign when people turn up early that they feel very strongly and I think one of the uplifting things amid a rather uneven and in many points tragic week was the fact that 98.6 per cent of the people eligible to vote did so. And it was a very inspiring thing to see people so long denied the opportunity of voting - something we all take for granted - exercising the right to do so.

PEACOCK:

And a spectacle the whole world watched and now, of course, they are watching massacres.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I made that very clear to the President. I mean, Matt, the situation is that what's occurred over the past two or three days has been quite indefensible and quite unacceptable. And it's tragic not only for the loss of life but also for the damage being done to Indonesia's reputation around the worldà....

PEACOCK:

Well, can he do anything about? Is he, how can he?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, in the end that is a matter for him and for his Government. For Australia's part we have repeatedly made our concern clear. We do respect and praise the fact that Dr Habibie has provided the circumstances for a free and open ballot. It's been difficult, there has been loss of life. There's been lawlessness, there's been a blind eye turned to acts of terrorism. However, a ballot has taken place and all of the indications so far are that it was conducted in relatively peaceful circumstances. It also has presided, I might say, over a change to democracy in a nation of 211 million people. Soà

PEACOCK:

And has many other problems on his plate.

PRIME MINISTER:

He has many other problems and I should say to you that one of the things he did say to me was that he wanted the rest of the world to understand that there were other trouble spots in Indonesia not only in East Timor. And that there had to be a sense of balance and a sense of perspectiveà

PEACOCK:

So did you offer to help him out then, Prime Minister? I mean, on the one hand you have got our troops poised to evacuate people but we could send some if they want.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Matt, of course we discussed the whole issue of peacekeeping, of course, for reasons I hope you will understand I can't go into every detail of the discussions but you should understand that there is an agreement between Indonesia, Portugal and the United Nations which covers both eventualities after the result of the ballot is known. It remains the case, of course, that until there is a formal determination by the Indonesian National Assembly that in the event of East Timor voting for independence the territory would remain part of the sovereignty of Indonesia until that formal determination occurred. And no country in Indonesia is no exception to this, will ever give up the right to decide who comes in to that country from outside whilever they retain sovereignty over a particular part of their country.

PEACOCK:

So did the President indicate whether or not he might be prepared to accept that kind of thing in the near future rather than later?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think it's fair that I say that the whole issue was discussed in some detail. I remind you that there is an agreement and also make the, you know, the obvious comment that you can't send peacekeepers into a country without the consent of that country's government unless you are prepared to invade that country. Now, that's been said before but I think a lot depends on what occurs, the degree of tranquillity and order after the result of the ballot is known. And everybody has a responsibility to get behind the result. He assured me that he would. He assured me that if the vote were in favour of separation then he would fully accept and respect that and would act to ensure that it were fully accepted and respected. He also, of course, said similar things if the vote were in favour of East Timor remaining part of Indonesia.

PEACOCK:

President Habibie is one thing but what's happening there now and particularly what we might expect after the ballot is announced is another thing. Your choice is either evacuating Australians if there's a major blood bath or perhaps assisting some kind of peacekeeping effort and do you think he'll respond positively?

PRIME MINISTER:

He has previouslyà

PEACOCK:

Because timing is of the essence isn't it?

PRIME MINISTER:

It is Matt. And it's one of the reasons why I rang him this afternoon to drive home our concern particularly but not only about the safety of Australians. Now, on the question of evacuation, if that becomes necessary we are ready to implement any evacuation and I have previously received assurances from the President that the Indonesian security forces would cooperate in that. Now, I don't at this stage believe that will become necessary but we are ready to do it and the forces are ready and Mr Moore has been in the Northern Territory at Tindal this afternoon talking to the forces. So, we are in a state of readiness as far as that is concerned, but at the moment I don't think that will become necessary but if it is then it will happen. And it will be done speedily and effectively and on the basis of the assurances I've received from the President with the cooperation of the Indonesian security forces.

PEACOCK:

Did the President indicate any specific action that he might be taking to stop what is going on there now, that satisfied you to any degree.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, in all of these situations it is what happens that really matters, I mean, that is self-evident and I'm not happy with what has occurred.

PEACOCK:

So did you give him any kind of deadlines?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, Matt, I didn't ring him proposing deadlines. As things stand at the moment, we are endeavouring to cooperate and giving deadlines, it doesn't achieve anything, but making plain concern, indicating that we are ready to act to protect our own, which we are, but also not doing that in such a way as to sever lines of communication. I mean, the greatest commodity Australia still has in dealing with Indonesia at the moment is influence, and we should never lose that. And if we use language or act in a way that diminishes the willingness of the Indonesians to listen to us, and I think we give away one of the greatest commodities that we have. It is a balancing act. I am concerned, deeply concerned, all Australia is concerned at what is happened there over the past few days but I don't lose sight of the fact, I don't want Australians to lose sight of the fact, that for all the faults, and for all the mistakes and all the neglect, this country has moved to democracy and this President has given the people of East Timor the opportunity of deciding their future. Now, he deserves credit and deserves understanding and perhaps more than he has so far received in relation to both of those things.

PEACOCK:

A final question, Prime Minister. I mean, President Habibie himself has to face his future whether becomes the President or not in several months time. In the meantime do you think he would view favourably increasing the United Nations' presence in East Timor?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think it is one of those things that one needs to keep talking about over a period of time. There is an agreement with the United Nations, a tripartite agreement involving Indonesia, Portugal and the UN. Let's wait and see what is the result of the ballot. He is very conscious of world opinion and world concern. He has also got other responsibilities and other difficulties in his own country. He is the leader of 211 million people and it is a very varied nation and we should always keep that in mind, and we should as well as being understandably critical, we should also respect the progress that is being made towards democracy and the fact that the people of East Timor for the first time in a quarter of a century have been given a vote to decide their own future, and according to all reports so far, that vote has been properly conducted and at some time in the not too distant future and the immediate future we'll know the outcome.

PEACOCK:

Prime Minister, thanks for joining us.

[ends]

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