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AUS: Two Howard Interviews On East Timor


7 September 1999

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP INTERVIEW WITH MATT PEACOCK AM PROGRAMME, ABC RADIO

PEACOCK:

Prime Minister, you've also been on the phone to Kofi Annan at the UN and President Habibie in Indonesia, was there any sign last night that Indonesia may accept this force?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, there are some reports this morning that the Indonesians are considering the imposition of some kind of martial law in East Timor and there's a suggestion that if that did not produce an improvement in a very short period of time then there would be a willingness to accept an international force. Now, our position for a long time has been to work towards being in a position to contribute in a major way to such a force. I indicated to the Secretary General yesterday that we would be willing to contribute up to 2000, we would be willing to accept a leadership role. That seemed to be the indication of the Secretary General that that's what the United Nations would want if things were to move in that direction. It' s always been the case that there are some conditions on our involvement. The first and most important one is that it has to be a UN mandated mission. We need to be accompanied by other contributors. We're not going to do it alone and that would be unreasonable and dangerous and unacceptable. And it is also still the case, much in all as it is difficult for some people to accept this fact, that unless there is some acknowledgement or acceptance by the Indonesians of the presence of an international force û and I say this not withstanding all the strong feelings that people have about the behaviour of the Indonesian Government and the Indonesian Army û unless there is an acceptance then it does amount to an invasion of another country. And no Australian Prime Minister is going to, in his right mind, get involved in that sort of situation. I have a responsibility to the armed forces of this country never to expose them to an unreasonable level of risk. Now, we have been working overtime to try and improve what is now a tragic situation. I know how distressed people are in Australia. I know how gruesome the TV images are. I have put our views very strongly about that in my discussion with Dr Habibie last night and he is in no doubt about the strength of our concern and our desire to see now, without any delay, an improvement in the situation. And our belief that if the Indonesian authorities can't or won't, or a combination of the two bring, bring the situation back to a tolerable state of affairs then the introduction of some kind of international force to assist is the only alternative. Now, we have made that plain. That is what we have worked towards and that is what we have bent every diplomatic and other effort over the last few days to bring about.

PEACOCK:

So how reassured are you about the idea of martial law and more troops, I meanà?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Matt, I will only be reassured when I see an improvement on the streets of Dili and that applies to all of us. We are in a situation now where every story of a further tragedy alarms us. I will act and respond to deeds but I must deal with the reality. It's no good waving my arms around and saying, well, I wish it were otherwise and people should do this or that. We have to work hard at a diplomatic and other level.

PEACOCK:

But certainly it would appear that the Indonesian military's actively involved.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the evidence is certainly in that direction and I made that plain when I spoke to the President. I understand that but what we have to do is not so much lament what has happened but try and stop it being repeated in the future and you try every device. Now, I spoke to the Secretary General four times yesterday and I rang President Clinton last night toà

PEACOCK:

What did President Clintonà

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I rang President Clinton to brief him on my assessment of the present situation and I asked him whether the Americans would be willing to contribute to any international force. I said there would be a strong expectation in Australia that that should be the case. He said that he would consider that. He did indicate their commitments elsewhere. And I also put the view to him that anything that he could do to persuade the Indonesian Government to either asserting the authority of their armed forces and in default of that allowing an international force into Indonesia he should seek to bring about. Now, it was a very valuable and timely discussion and he's obviously having further discussions with a range of people as American Presidents do. Matt, I am appalled at what is happening. It is doing a great deal of damage to Indonesia's international reputation. We are alarmed at the loss of life. We have a responsibility to try and stop the violence. We have an obligation to contribute, as we will, in a significant and leading role to an international force if the circumstances allowing that force to materialise on conditions that are acceptable to the Australian Government and the Australian people.

PEACOCK:

And do you sense a shift in the Indonesian position, I mean, this declaration of martial law...?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Matt, there are reports to that effect around. I don't, at this stage, want to say more than that.

PEACOCK:

How personally responsible to you feel over this evolving tragedy? I mean, it was, after all, your initiative with President Habibie that brought the ballot about.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I haven't really stopped to worry about apportioning responsibility. I'm trying to get an improvement in the situation. I don't regret for a moment that the Australian Government played a major role in persuading the Indonesian Government to have a ballot.

PEACOCK:

There's been criticism this morning that it's only now that the coalition of nations is being stitched togetherà

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think that is a bit unrealistic. From Australia's point of view we have been getting ready for the state of readiness we are now in if a peacekeeping force should materialise. We've been getting ready now for months. I mean, remember the establishment of the second brigade in the state of readiness was announced months ago by the Defence Minister. I mean, our troops are now down to a 24 hour state of readiness. We have been preparing for this methodically and comprehensively now for months. Now, it may not materialise. And, I repeat, there will be no û obviously we're not going to involve ourselves in any kind of unilateral invasion of Indonesia. That is preposterous. But it is appropriate that we be involved in an international peacekeeping force if the circumstances allowing that to happen materialise and they are the willingness of the Indonesian Government, a United Nations mandate and sufficient company from other countries so that Australia is not alone.

PEACOCK:

And which other countriesà?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, a number. I mean, I would hope that the Americans would be involved. I've had an indication this morning from the New Zealand Prime Minister, to whom I spoke before this interview, that there would be a New Zealand involvement. There's been a Canadian positive response and I know the Secretary General is approaching a couple of other nations in the region. And I also understand that the Foreign Minister got a reasonably positive response from the British Foreign Secretary to whom he spoke yesterday. So there are signs of a greater international involvement and a willingness. But all of these things are conditional on there being a proper UN mandate and obviously on the willingness of the Indonesian Government. Now, we are working very hard on that. I don't know that I can say much more specifically on that issue and we have been working very hard now for days. It is an extraordinarily difficult situation. I understand the frustration, the distress and the anger of the Australian community. I also have a responsibility in this situation never to commit Australian forces to a situation where they are exposed to unreasonable risk.

PEACOCK:

But in effect Indonesia's being subjected to very intense diplomatic pressure û the IMF, all those agencies, presumably, have made their feelings very firmly.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I can't speak for other other agencies but I can speak for the Australian Government and we have made our position very clear consistent with our desire to keep open the channels of communication. And also, despite all that has happened in the last 48 hours, to recognise that what the Habibie Government did to allow a ballot was something no Indonesian government had done for 25 years. And the fact that Indonesia has now moved towards a democratic state of government, those two things are to the credit of Dr Habibie. They are to the credit of his administration. And amidst all of the distress and the anger and the alarm about what is happening we should see in context those two achievements by Dr Habibie and give him proper credit for them.

PEACOCK:

Back on the ground in East Timor Bishop Belo, is he safe do you think?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the latest information I had was that he personally was. That was obviously a deplorable incident. I spoke last night for some time to Alan Mills, the Australian Federal Police Commander in East Timor, who's doing an


7 September 1999

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP RADIO INTERVIEW WITH JOHN MILLER (4BC)

SUBJECT: East Timor


MILLER:

Prime Minister, what are you able to tell us from the no doubt extensive briefings that you would be getting as to what is the situation in East Timor this morning?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the situation this morning is still very bad. It's got dramatically worse over the last 48 hours, and there's been a level of violence and intimidation and harassment which is quite unacceptable in the international community. And every effort has to be made and certainly Australia has done this already to encourage the Indonesian authorities to get the situation under control. And if assistance is needed to achieve that then the Indonesian authorities, the Government should be willing to accept an international peace force to help in that process. And that is Australia's position. We are ready to contribute up to 2000 Australian troops to that force. We would be ready to accept the leadership role. We would like naturally to be accompanied by other nations and it can only occur if there' s a United Nations mandate and the Indonesian Government agrees. If you send forces to another country and the government of that country doesn't want those forces that's an invasion. And many of the people who understandably are alarmed at what is happening in East Timor are saying we must send troops, we must do something.

I understand that and we are doing something, but they must understand that unless you have the approval of the government of the country to whom you send troops than that is tantamount to an invasion. Now I hope that the growing international entreaties and pressure to and on the Indonesian Government will produce a better outcome on the ground, and the militias could be stopped if there were a will by the forces on the ground to stop them. And I am frankly dismayed and alarmed and have made that plain to the Indonesian President in a discussion I had with him last night as to what has happened. It is a very distressing situation and I understand the reaction of my fellow Australians to it.

We are doing everything we can to improve it. We are willing to contribute. I spoke four times yesterday to the Secretary-General of the United Nations and I rang President Clinton early this morning to request an American involvement if there were a peacekeeping force, and to ask him to use his great office and authority to persuade the Indonesian Government that the situation had to improve and improve very quickly. Now all of that effort will go on and I can assure your listeners that we are as distressed as no doubt they are at the developments. But we are dealing with the territory of another country and as Prime Minister of this country I am not going to commit Australian forces to circumstances where they would be exposed to an unreasonable degree of danger or risk.

MILLER:

Well I can certainly appreciate that and I'm sure most Australians would as well. However isn't that the key to the situation that it would appear that the armed forces, the Indonesian armed forces are paying no attention whatsoever to the entreaties of their Government? That they are acting off their own back, in as one East Timorese spokesman told me this morning, clearly now not only orchestrating but taking part in the violence.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well of course. They're not doing their job and I've said that to the President, and others are saying that to the President.

MILLER:

Well I guess my question if then û do you think he'll be able to bring East Timorà.?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don't know. There are reports this morning that there could be a declaration of martial law in the province which would have the effect of giving the army more direct control over the situation. But it seems to me that it's not so much a legal problem or legal impediment. It's a political problem. And we either are going to act, we either are going to see the domestic forces of Indonesia act to stop what is unacceptable. Of if they can't or won't, or a combination of the two, then we would urge them to accept an international force that would do precisely that. Now that is the situation, that is where we are as we speak. Now I put that view very strongly to the President. It is the collective view of the rest of the world. I've spoken, as I say, to the Secretary-General, I spoke yesterdayàlast night to the Portuguese Prime Minister, I spoke this morning to the New Zealand Prime Minister and I've spoken to President Clinton.

Our own forces are now on a 24-hour readiness. We have been planning for months I might tell your listeners for the possibility that we might need to contribute in a major way to a peacekeeping force. That is why we decided to have a second brigade in a state of readiness. So we are militarily ready. We can deploy but we need the right circumstances that provide proper protection for the Australian forces, which is my most important and ultimate responsibility. And I'm not going to allow any judgements get in the way of my concern for the proper security and safety of Australian forces.

MILLER:

Well indeed. But doesn't that again point out the situation that what do we have if we have a rebellious military in East Timor thumbing their nose at their own Government, suddenly being confronted by UN peacekeeping forces?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that is why John, it's necessary if we're to send a peacekeeping force to have the consent of the Government. If you don't have the consent of the Government you have the circumstances of an invasion. Nobody surely is advocating that.

MILLER:

No, no. I don't think anybody is [inaudible].

PRIME MINISTER:

I mean bear in mind there are 15,000 police and troops of the Indonesian State in East Timor. There are 250,000 in the Indonesian Army.

MILLER:

Well yes. Nobody I think wants us to pick a fight with Indonesia.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it's just that in some of the comments there seems to be a disconnect between the desire to do something and the reality that you can only do something militarily, short of an invasion with the consent of the country to which the troops are being sent.

MILLER:

Well you can understand people's frustration at the moderate language of diplomacy.

PRIME MINISTER:

John, I feel the frustration. I mean I have watched with anguish these pictures. They are distressing. It is tragic that a group of people who waited so long for a vote, finally got a vote and they now feel that maybe fruits of it maybe taken away from them. Now I understand that. And bear in mind that it was the Government I lead that persuadedà.helped to persuade rather, the Indonesian Government to have a ballot. I mean no previous Australian Government had ever asked the Indonesian Government or suggested the Indonesian Government that there be a free and open ballot on independence for East Timor. It was the Coalition Government in December of last year that did that. So we very much share the joy of the people of East Timor in having voted in favourà.being given a vote. I mean how they vote's for them but they voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence.

MILLER:

Well given all of that we are still, are we not in some respects, between a rock and a hard place here becauseà.

PRIME MINISTER:

You often are in these situations.

MILLER:

à..because course, unless the Indonesian Government can control their own troops that to me would be a key issue.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, of course we're in a rock and a hard place. On the one hand we are appalled at what is occurring and are willing to do something. But we need one or two conditions to be fulfilled in order for that to happen. And the one major one is we need the acceptance of the Indonesian Government. Now can I put it this way, activity is going on all the time. We are doing everything we can to get the right circumstances for a peacekeeping force to go there. But I have to say again that unless there is an acceptance of that by the Indonesian Government you are invading the country and we're simply not going to do that.

MILLER:

Okay. Are we exploring other avenues such as economic pressure on the Indonesians, something they would feel acutely given the state of their economy at the moment?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, everything is on the table however cutting off an IMF loan is not necessarily going to bring in the requisite short period of time the sort of outcome we want. But can I say, all of these things are on the table. But also remember there are 211 million ordinary, many desperately poor people, in Indonesia and amidst all of this we have to be certain that we don't put a further intolerable burden on people's lives which are already quite wretched.

MILLER:

Being pragmatic as well I suppose you have got to say that the last thing we want is a collapsed Indonesia.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that is another consideration although it's not as important to me as the considerations I have mentioned. The most important thing to do at the moment is to maintain a channel of communication with the Indonesian Government so that the level of concern the international community feels can be constantly transmitted. Once you lose communication with somebody, be it an individual or a nation, you lose your capacity to influence that individual. And I know people will be cynical about that remark but the reality is that we have been able to exert influence over Indonesia in the past and we must keep trying because we need an improvement in the situation on the ground. We are doing all we can to persuade them to assert their authority and we are putting the view that if that through their own devices does not work then the introduction of an international peacekeeping force to assist in which Australia would play a significant role is the next step. Now, that has been our position diplomatically and privately for some time. I am just being a little more explicit about it because I want the Australian people to understand exactly what the Government is doing and proposes to do.

MILLER:

In your conversations with the Indonesian President do you get the impression that he is confident that he can be in control of the situation?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don't think it's fair for me to comment on all the details of private discussions. It's a very difficult position for him but he's in no doubt as to the concern I have, the concern the Australian people have. And I am sure he is in no doubt about the concern of the rest of the world.

MILLER:

Speaking of concerns. Late yesterday afternoon we managed to make contact with Dr Michael Tyquin, he is working at the Catholic Medical Centre in Dili. At the time he agreed to do an interview with us on the programme this morning and it was on the basis that we passed on his grave concerns to you because he knew that I'd be speaking with you as well. And he said : ôplease tell the Prime Minister to help and help us fastö.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I understand that and I have tried in this interview this morning to explain what we are doing. And I would hope that if he were hearing this interview, which he is not obviously, but if he were hearing it he would understand that everything that can be done is being done. I spoke last night to Alan Mills who is the Australian Federal Police Commander of the civilian police contingent in East Timor. And he is doing a fantastic job and I was filled with admiration for the calm professionalism that he was displaying in a very difficult situation. And in a typical Australian understatement he said 'it's a bit hairy'. It's more than a bit hairy. He said he expected that and they're doing a fantastic job. I mean, John, I know how desperate people are. I just make the observation that if we commit Australian forces in the wrong circumstances the people who would pay would be those young Australian soldiers and I am not going to allow that to happen.

MILLER:

All right. Well, given that we do have to approach this situation very carefully because am I right in saying this is potentially, or already in fact, our most serious problem in our region for decades.

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, there's no doubt about that. And the rest of the world sees Australia as having a special responsibility because East Timor is close to Australia, we have an historical association with the country and the rest of the world basically says 'well, this is somewhere where Australia should play a big part'. Now, we are perfectly happy to do that and I have indicated that. I have said all along that if independence for East Timor means that Australia must accept a greater burden than would otherwise be the case and that will be a burden in aid, a burden in other respects because it will be a fragile, fledgling country. There'll be fewer than a million people, it will have a very low standard of living, it will have virtually no infrastructure. And the reality of an independent East Timor is a very sobering one and people should understand that. And we accept that we have a particular responsibility and we have never tried to avoid that responsibility. I just want the Australian people to understand the difficulty in which we are placed in response to the violence that we all wanted to stop but we must understand the only acceptable circumstances in which we can act to stop it.

MILLER:

Okay. Well, given now that the moves are, it would appear, under way by the UN to convinceà

PRIME MINISTER:

There is a very heavy diplomatic activity going on at the present time and the UN is very heavily involved. And I hope that we see progress.

MILLER:

All right. Well, let's ask this question. Can you put any timeframeà

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, I can't. It's useless trying to do that. I am not going to put timeframes on this because they then become benchmarks and if they are not met then that becomes the issue.

MILLER:

All right, well fair enough. But then let's hypothesise a little bit then I suppose and say if the Indonesians say, yes, go ahead let's have a UN peacekeeping force on the island how quickly do you believeà

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, Australian forces in the right circumstances could be in within 48 or 72 hours.

MILLER:

48 or 72 hours to deploy. How long do you think it would take themàfor them to be joined by forces from other countries?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it would vary. Some more quickly than others.

MILLER:

Okay. So let's just recap on the situation as it stands this morning. The briefings you have been given on the situation in Dili and other parts of East Timor has not got any better if anything it has got worse.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, certainly not improved. I mean, it has deteriorated dramatically over the last 48 hours and this morning there is no evidence yet of any improvement.

MILLER:

And that unless we get this UN peacekeeping force we will definitely not be taking any precipitous action?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we are not going to invade Indonesia. That's the point I am making, Australia is not going to unilaterally invade Indonesia. That is absurd.

MILLER:

Yes it is rather.

PRIME MINISTER:

And it has to be said in those stark terms so that we get a sense of perspective. But Australia will do all it humanly can to persuade the Indonesian Government internally to assert greater control over what is happening to the army and the police to accept responsibilities and we will act very, very actively and vigorously internationally to get pressure to bear on Indonesia. And we are willing, if the right circumstances come for an international peacekeeping force, to play a major even leadership role in that force provided it's mandated by the United Nations and we are accompanied by a number of other contributing nations.

MILLER:

In the meantime, will the evacuation of Australians continue?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes. We have already evacuated 389 people. There aren't terribly many non-UNAMET, that's non-United Nations or Consulate personnel Australians left in East Timor. That's gone very well. It's been conducted very professionally by the Royal Australian Air Force and that will go on as required. And that's gone very smoothly without incident and our men and women deserve our thanks for that operation.

MILLER:

All right. Prime Minister, we'll leave it there. You say everything's still on the table and the diplomatic pressure is on.

PRIME MINISTER:

Absolutely.

MILLER:

Prime Minister, thank you for talking to us this morning.

[ends]

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