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AUS: Howard And Moore Interview

8 September 1999

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP JOINT PRESS CONFERENCE WITH MR JOHN MOORE, DEFENCE MINISTER PARLIAMENT HOUSE


PRIME MINISTER:

Well ladies and gentlemen, the Federal Cabinet met this afternoon to review the East Timor situation. I don't have a lot of additional things to report to you. The security situation in Dili has clearly not improved. I've spoken on a couple of occasions today to the Secretary-General of the United Nations. It remains the desire of the Security Council, the United Nations that in default of a satisfactory return to proper security conditions in East Timor due to the activities of the Indonesian army and police that a peacekeeping force should be introduced.

Australia's position remains the same. We believe that unless the security situation in East Timor is restored to a proper level, and there is precious little evidence to us of that occurring, then international pressure should be applied to the Indonesian Government to allow the introduction of a peacekeeping force. And as I've already announced Australia would be willing to play a very major leading role in that peacekeeping force. Mr Moore has been very busy in talking to his counterparts in other parts of the world and the evidence so far is that there'll be a very good participation from a number of countries including the Canadians, the British, the New Zealanders, the Thais, the Malaysians.

Our best information at this stage is that there will at least be logistical support, well we're confident of logistical support, and some other support from the United States. The extent of any ground force commitment from the United States at this stage is unclear.

I don't know that I have a great deal further to report to you because the situation remains still totally unsatisfactory so far as the security situation is concerned. But given the significance of the issue the Government intends to give regular press briefings to keep you, and through you the Australian public fully informed. But if there are any questions I' d be very happy to answer them.

JOURNALIST:

What would be the size of the UN force and what would be the size of the Australian contributionà.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the Australian contribution would be up to 2,000. And the size of the force initially would be in the order of 6,000 to 7,000 of which the Australian contribution would be up to 2,000.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, what is the àin terms of moreàgiven that the UN mission did go into Jakarta today and [inaudible] international force...

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Fran, that is not an easy question to satisfactorily answer because it' s not an easy situation. And I know to the tidy human mind that seeks an immediate solution to a tragic situation, you reach out and hope there were an easy solution to that. You can only work in a variety of ways to build international pressure. We've built a lot of international pressure on Indonesia. Indonesia's President is not going to the meeting in New Zealand. I think that is significant, although you will have different interpretations as to how significant. Pressure will build if people feel that the clear expression of will by the people of East Timor is not going to be given effect to. I've said before that we don't take off the table economic matters. I'm not dollar rattling on that. I'm just saying that we 're not taking those things off the table. The United Nations has in its hand a tri-partite agreement signed by Indonesia, Portugal, and the Secretary-General of the UN. And that agreement commits Indonesia to the holding of a ballot, and it commits Indonesia to honouring the outcome of that ballot. Now we live in an interconnected community and a nation the size of Indonesia, and a nation that needs the rest of the world economically and socially and politically cannot indefinitely ignore an accumulation of world opinion. I don't find many countries putting their hands up for a denial by Indonesia of the gift of freedom given in that ballot. So there isn't an easy simple answer to that.

I share the sense of frustration that the Australian people feel. I share the sense of anger that the Australian people feel about what has happened. We are prepared in proper circumstances to commit the livesà.the future and the lives and the safety of Australian servicemen, but we're not prepared to do it in inappropriate circumstances. We're not prepared to do it unilaterally. We're not prepared to do it without the sanction of the United Nations. And we have to balance our anger about what is occurring with a measured sensible response that respects in the end the proper safeguards and proper concerns for the lives and safety of Australian servicemen.

JOURNALIST:

How do you interpret President Habibie's no show at APEC? Do you think he's [inaudible]à

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there are a variety of interpretations. I don't think it helps the mission I have in mind at the moment to go into that. As always you know Matt I resist role of a political commentator.

JOURNALIST:

But it's not necessarily a negative development?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think there are a variety of interpretations you could place on it.

JOURNALIST:

à[Inaudible] the Indonesian crowds this afternoon [inaudible] invaded and do you see [inaudible] where does it leave our relationsà.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the answer to the first question I guess is several fold. I suppose in one sense it rather gives the lie to some people who've been running around in the last few days saying that we have been too accommodating to the Indonesians on East Timor.

Secondly I think it indicates that Australia is seen in Indonesia as taking a leading role in promoting the integrity of the United Nations' process in East Timor. I think we should also bear in mind that the circumstances in which demonstrations like that occur in countries that have different political systems from Australia are not necessarily the same as the circumstances in which they occur in Australia. And I guess the other point I'd make is where does it leave our relations? I mean our relations are obviously under strain because we are applying international pressure to Indonesia to do something that they are not necessarily keen on doing. Now I regret that the relationship has been put under strain but the goal in the end is to do the right thing, not to preserve a relationship at all costs. And the other thing that you've got to remember is that Indonesia is undergoing an enormous political transformation at the present time. It's huge. You've had the move to democracy for which I say again Dr Habibie deserves more credit than he's received - a lot more credit. And you've had the new elections which have left his party in a minority. Now obviously the relationship is under strain. It would be arrant nonsense of me to pretend otherwise, and it would be using sort of, you know, diplomatic niceties to avoid an obvious comment. But relationships can be under strain for a while and then in different circumstances they can gather momentum again. And the relationship between two countries is not just the political relationship between the Government of the day and the two countries. It's a people to people relationship and I think the ordinary people of Indonesia understand that we've tried to be a good friend of that country. Some people would say we've been too accommodating over the last 25 years. That of course is exercising the benefit of hindsight, and I'm not going to engage in that exercise tonight.

JOURNALIST:

Have you had any indications from the US [inaudible] their response to troopsà..

PRIME MINISTER:

Would you like to contribute to that Mr Moore?

DEFENCE MINISTER:

I spoke to the Secretary last night. We have had further discussions at the official level. They have promised to come back and have a look at the total picture. As shown on the CNN tonight they are still considering it and the Secretary of the United Nations is also in contact with them.

JOURNALIST:

What does it say about the allianceà..

DEFENCE MINISTER:

Oh, I think the alliance is in pretty good shape. What this probably is saying is they want to see what the Indonesian Government reaction is and they want to see what sort of plans are proposed for the peacekeeping operation. But what other countries are participating and what contribution we make on various countries.

JOURNALIST:

Are you disappointed that the US isn't taking a lead in joining Australia [inaudible] that coalitionà.

DEFENCE MINISTER:

Oh, you'd always like to see them come up and put their hand up first and say, sure, we're there. But they have indicated their general support for the idea. It's a question of quantifying where they go.

PRIME MINISTER:

It's who is in the blocks when the race starts that in the end matters.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, can you confirm a statement attributed to Mrs Shipley tonight thatà

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't normally confirm statements made by other Prime Ministers.

JOURNALIST:

But can you confirm that UNAMET [inaudible] I take it our position is [inaudible] on no account [inaudible] unless the Indonesians agree.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, look, the situation is that, I mean, we'll be providing theàwe'll be providing the usual air bridge that we have been providing for the past few days and obviously the UNAMET makes a day-to-day assessment and if it wants to thin its garrison, out or its establishment out rather, then it will choose to do that. But things tend to change a bit during the day but we are providing and air bridge and we'll continue to cooperate as we have been over the past few days. Now, what was the otherà

JOURNALIST:

Is it still the position that [inaudible] we will not be part of a force unless the Indonesians agree?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we are not, we have made it clear that is our position, yes.

JOURNALIST:

Is there any discussion of [inaudible] of Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, look, it seems in a sense, you know, the rush of events over the past few days are a bit academic. I don't know what it would necessarily achieve in the context of this. The direct answer to your question is no. If the United Nations agreement is adhered to Indonesia's sovereignty will end early in November. So it is a bit academic.

JOURNALIST:

[Inaudible] strong arguments for increasing the size of Australia's [inaudible] beyond 2000? Did Cabinet consider increasing the number of Australian troops todayà

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Paul, we have made an announcement of a particular commitment to a particular sized force. The question of whether it would be appropriate to have a larger commitment at another stage of any involvement is something that belongs to that situation. I am not going to rule anything in or out.

JOURNALIST:

So the force might, in fact, increase?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I am not ruling anything in or out. And I don't, I mean, it is not appropriate for me to do that. I mean, our situation is that we are serious about our commitment for this peacekeeping role. I have announced that as part of the initial phase of the peacekeeping operation there will be an Australian contribution of 2,000 which is the situation. Now, I don't rule it anything about the future in or out but I don't have anything further to say on force sizes today.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, what pressures can you bring to bear on the Indonesian armed forces if they are the power [inaudible]à

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I, look, there is a point beyond which one finds it impossible to go in terms of saying what additional pressure. I mean, we have said we'd play a major role in a peacekeeping force. I have spoken on a number of occasions to the Indonesian President. The Secretary-General of the United Nations is speaking to him. Other world leaders are making statements and exerting pressure. The role of the Indonesian army in Indonesian politics is well known but there are endless disputes about how influential and how deep that role is. Every available avenue will be used including obviously, I guess, contacts at senior levels of the Indonesian armed forces. But in the end, you know as well as I do that we are dealing with a political structure that is very different from ours and a political structure that is undergoing enormous strain because it's in transition. And that is playing itself out in what is now occurring.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, are you concerned that the build-up of anti-Indonesian feeling in Australia over the Indonesian crisis will sour the people-to-people relationship [inaudible]à.

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't think this is the time to really talk about that. It seems to me a fairly pointless thing to be doing at the present time. I mean, the focus at the moment is dealing with the instant and immediate security situation. There is great anguish in the Australian community about what they are seeing on their television sets. They don't like seeing people being killed. They don't like a small, defenceless group of people being denied the fruits of a free expression of democratic will. That's a natural human Australian reaction and I am proud that they do feel that way. But I am asking them also to understand that the next step is not necessarily to unilaterally, and certainly isn't, to unilaterally commit Australian forces to a situation that could unreasonably endanger the lives of young Australians. And I will not be part of allowing that sort of thing to happen. That is why I have been measured and careful and I will continue to be measured and careful about the circumstances in which Australian forces will be committed.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, how concerned are you for the safety of the Australians who are [inaudible] in East Timor?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, so far I am very happy to say that no Australian lives have been lost or nor has there been any serious injury and I am grateful for that. But I remain concerned while ever there are Australians in a theatre of danger. Of course I am concerned. I said when the civ-pol (civilian police) went there that they were going to be exposed to danger. Anybody in that situation is living dangerously and I want to place on record my gratitude to the Australian Federal Police, to the Consular staff. They have had to put up with very difficult circumstances in a very volatile situation. I spoke the other night to Alan Mills, the Australian Federal Police Commander who was, you know, an extraordinary person to say the least and he's calm dissection of a very difficult situation was most impressive. And I think they have all done a terrific job and we all ought to be immensely proud of them.

JOURNALIST:

Can you confirm whether or not UNAMET [inaudible] pull outà.

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh look, there have been various statements attributed to various UNAMET people during the day.

JOURNALIST:

[Inaudible] UNAMETà.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, look the situation with UNAMET is that we have an air bridge and if the UNAMET people want to thin out their establishment then we'll cooperate but that's something for them to determine. They're not answerable to us.

JOURNALIST:

[Inaudible] but you are using the words ôthin outö but is it possible [inaudible] UNAMET to pull out totallyà

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, that is something for them to decide that our situation is that we will, in accordance with what has occurred over the last few days, we'll provide the air bridge and the wherewithal if they want to take people out.

JOURNALIST:

[Inaudible] three consular officials in the UN compound [inaudible]à

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, it has always been the situation, Tony, that you keep the day to day almost hour to hour eye on the security situation and I am not going to sayàI am not going to put a precise time limit on how long people are going to be there or say they are definitely going to be there by such and such a time. I mean, the security situation is very volatile. It's worse now than what it was a few days ago. It could be worse again in the next 24/48 hours. I mean, I can't, I am not going to get into a situation where I say, well, you can rest assured that this won't happen by such and such a day. I mean, that is a ridiculous game to get into and I am not going to play it. Very last question. Mr Moore, somebody wanted to ask Mr Moore a question.

JOURNALIST:

[Inaudible] Indonesian army strategy [inaudible] in East Timor [inaudible] given that they outnumber the militia [inaudible]à

DEFENCE MINISTER:

I think your high class imagination. They announced before that they would change the General in relation to East Timor and I understand that's occurred. Extra troops have gone there, that happened today. The numbers have been built up and what we are hoping and what was said at the time when they [inaudible] put these in that that would restore law and order in East Timor. Now, we are yet to see it, it certainly hasn't been exhibited and I don't put down any, sort of, conspiracy theories, I think it's (inaudible) the fact that these troops have gone there. They haven't done what they are supposed to do butà

JOURNALIST:

[Inaudible]

DEFENCE MINISTER:

No, I don't know.

[ends]


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