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AUS: Howard Interview On East Timor


8 September 1999

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP TELEVISION INTERVIEW WITH STEVE LIEBMANN THE TODAY SHOW

Subject: East Timor

LIEBMANN:

Prime Minister good morning to you.

PRIME MINISTER:

Hello Steve.

LIEBMANN:

Prime Minister, any developments overnight that you can tell us about? Any progress being made?

PRIME MINISTER:

On the ground the situation has probably got worse because communication links are now falling into disrepair and breaking down. And that makes it particularly difficult for our own consular staff in Dili, and I want to place on record my admiration for the Australian consular staff's work. And it's also making it very hard for UNAMET. Our Defence Minister spoke last night to both the United States Defence Secretary William Cohen, and the British Defence Secretary George Robertson. We are confident now that the Americans would provide at least logistical support which is quite important. Beyond that it's still being studied in Washington. The British have offered the support of at least a naval vessel which is in the area. And when you take into account the offers of support from the Canadians, the New Zealanders, I understand the Malaysians and the Thais, and also possibly others, you do have the beginnings of quite a significant international peacekeeping force, if it can be injected into this very difficult situation.

LIEBMANN:

And yet you still require the endorsements for that peacekeeping force to go into East Timor of the United Nations and Jakarta, and we aren't getting it are we?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I'm not saying for a moment you're not getting it from the United Nations. The United Nations is playing a very active role in putting the force together. They want an international peacekeeping force if the Indonesians don't do their job and assert authority. Our total focus now is to put maximum pressure on Jakarta to either clean up its own act and get its own house in order and stop the violence. Or if they can't or won't, let somebody else in who will. Now that is our single-minded objective. It is not easy. It requires the constant building of pressure. The United Nations is playing quite a significant role in that and I would expect today to talk again to the Secretary-General to get an assessment from him. But I can assure you that he has communicated in the strongest possible way to the government in Jakarta the concern of the international community, and that is in addition of course to my own conversations, those of the Foreign Minister with the Indonesian Foreign Minister, and countless other foreign leaders who I guess have done the same thing or should have done the same thing.

LIEBMANN:

But Prime Minister, maximum pressure on Jakarta is maximum pressure on President Habibe and all the reports would indicate that he is powerless. He is not calling the shots.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Steve that is one of the complicating factors in this agonisingly difficult situation. I want the violence to stop, Australians want it to stop. In here we have very little faith that the Indonesian authorities are going to stop it therefore the injection of an international force is the only way you can be certain it will at least be reduced if not totally stopped. But you've got to get, unless you're willing to invade another country - and I don't hear the United Nations or anybody else around the world saying they want to do that û unless you're going to invade another country and face the prospect of Australian soldiers fighting Indonesian soldiers. I mean people who are saying we must not wait for the United Nations, we must not wait for Jakarta, must understand that one of the consequences of that would be that Australian soldiers would be fighting Indonesian soldiers. And I don't want any Australians to misunderstand that because I think in the understandable passion and concern people feel about this issue, and the anger they feel, and the empathy they feel for the poor people of East Timor, they say why can't you do something to stop it. Now unless you smooth the way to the introduction of an international peace force you can end up with Australian soldiers fighting Indonesian soldiers. I mean the last thing an Australian Prime Minister does is to commit to unnecessary danger young Australian lives.

LIEBMANN:

And yet the irony of all of this is, if you finally get approval to send a peacekeeping force in, tell me if I'm wrong, is it not possible that Australian soldiers could be working beside Indonesian soldiers, those who have orchestrated the mayhem and the crisis in East Timor to bring about a peace?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Steve, stranger things have happened but that's possible, although I think on the side of being unlikely. My guess is that if the Indonesians accept at some time the introduction of an international force there will be a withdrawal and a retreat of Indonesia involvement. And it's also fair to say that part of the difficulty here is that the Indonesian army is not acting as one. We are getting reports saying that some of the Indonesian army elements in East Timor are behaving differently from others. Some are closer to the militia than others. Many of them are locally recruited East Timorese and are therefore sympathetic with the pro-integration anti-independence section in the province. Others are adopting a more standoff, more professional approach. So it's a very mixed picture, and you were right a moment ago to point to the political instability in Jakarta. I mean we as Australians who take political stability for granted, we have a change of government that occurs bloodlessly and seamlessly. There's a change of policy but life goes on. Indonesia has just converted to democracy. You have in office a man whose party is now in a minority in the newly elected national parliament. You have the army of Indonesia playing a major role in the government of that country. We are dealing with a very volatile, different situation, and it's something that the Australian public has to keep in mind.

LIEBMANN:

Prime Minister, I'm talking to you this morning from our Air Force base at Darwin, and in front of me I can see Hercules aircraft that are being used to evacuate Australians and aid workers, and providing sanctuary in Australia for them. What about the East Timorese? Are we prepared to bring them to Australia until the situation's resolved?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Steve, in a situation like this I don't rule anything out, nor do I just say on the run 'yes', with out knowing the full ramifications and implications. Now let me say this, that Australia will continue to behave in a humanitarian fashion towards refugees from any part of the world. We do feel a particular responsibility for the people of East Timor. But most importantly the aim has to be to restore tolerable living conditions in East Timor because in the long run that is where the East Timorese people want to be. They voted for their own country and their own future less than a week ago, and the sacred obligation the world has is to see that they enjoy the benefit of that decision.

LIEBMANN:

It sounds very much to me as, just finally, as if your patience isn't running out, has run out.

PRIME MINISTER:

I am extremely skeptical now about the capacity/willingness of those in Jakarta to do something. But I have to say to the Australian people that the next step is not easy and those who say do something no matter what the cost must understand that unless the right conditions exist you are talking about Australian soldiers fighting Indonesian soldiers and I don't think the Australian people would lightly want to see that occur.

LIEBMANN:

Prime Minister thank you for your time this morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

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