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AUS: Howard On East Timor

13 September 1999

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP PRESS CONFERENCE û HYATT REGENCY HOTEL AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND

I have called this special news conference. Ladies and gentlemen, you'd all be aware of the statement that has been made by the Indonesian President tonight. It's a tremendous step forward. It's a very important statement and I welcome it.

Remember only a few hours ago we were saying that the objective was to secure the agreement of the Indonesian Government for the introduction of UN peacekeepers into East Timor and the Indonesian President has announced that the Indonesian Government will do that.

Most importantly, this is a great step forward for the people of East Timor because it's their welfare, their future, their safety, their freedom that this has been all about.

Now, there's a lot of work to be done. Mr Alatas is going to New York to talk to the Secretary-General. I have been in touch with the Secretary-General tonight and I'll be in touch with him again tomorrow.

Can I say that Dr Habibie deserves credit, great credit, for what he has said tonight. I have said before that the Australian Government and the Australian people have no quarrel with the people of Indonesia. What Dr Habibie said tonight, I should inform you, is very much in line with what he told me a week ago would be his path of action. He said that if the introduction of martial law were not successful then he would invite, in the words he used tonight, friendly countries to contribute a peacekeeping force. And he has delivered on that tonight. And I think the world should know that and I want to record that tonight that he has kept faith with what he told me a week ago.

It is very important that we not lose sight of the fact that there are many I's to be dotted and T's to be crossed and there's a lot of work to be done and there's a lot of negotiating to take place. But the importance of tonight is that the objective we have all had over the past few days in the face of the evident failure of the Indonesian authorities to maintain security and decent conditions in East Timor and that is to have a peacekeeping force there, that has been now accepted by the Government of Indonesia. And even the most cynical and the most skeptical and the most suspicious must see that as a huge step forward and I welcome it but I commit the Government to working very hard to make certain that the detail of what now follows is implemented as quickly as possible so that maximum protection and maximum security can be given to the people of East Timor.

JOURNALIST:

How quickly could it happen, Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, as soon as possible, Matt. I mean, we want to get it done as soon as possible. But tonight we have had the President of Indonesia say yes and that is a huge step forward.

JOURNALIST:

Would you be prepared to see Australian troops go in ahead of the main force givenà

PRIME MINISTER:

It has to be done under the aegis of the United Nations. We are in touch with the United Nations, the United Nations Secretary-General has asked me to send some of our planning people to New York. We work with the United Nations. The operation will be a United Nations sanctioned operation. So what is done will be done under the general benediction of the United Nations. The peacekeeping force on all information available to me will be broadly based, it will include a very large number of countries from the ASEAN area which is very good. I welcome the fact that countries like Malaysia and Singapore and the Philippines and Thailand are all willing to contribute. That is as it should be. It's important that this be seen as primarily but not only the responsibility of countries in the region and we want to help. And the other thing we want to do is look beyond this and that is to resume our positive work with the people of Indonesia helping them to build a future. Because this decision if it is all finally carried through in an effective way is a good decision for Indonesia because Indonesia needs the international community. The international community wants to be friendly with Indonesia and my message to the Government and the people of Indonesia is that the world wants to work with you and to help you and to help rebuild your future. We've had this argument. We've had this difference of opinion and if we can resolve it and move on that will be very much to our satisfaction and very much to your benefit.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, President Habibie said tonight that this UN force today would work in cooperation with Indonesian military forces. Is that something that's achievable?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, I am sure it is. Look, you wouldn't expect the TNI just to disappear overnight. In fact, that would be undesirable, that would be chaotic. Look, I amàlook, let's not, sort of, pretend that there aren't a lot of details to be worked out and a lot of hurdles to be cleared, of course there are. On the the other hand, let's not lose sight of the fact that tonight the Government of Indonesia has said it will accept a UN peacekeeping force and that was our objective, our single, irrevocable, unmistakable objective only a few hours ago.

JOURNALIST:

[Inaudible] was that made this possible, Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't know that I can assess that at twenty-five to two in the morning but I think a lot of very hard work and I am very proud of the role that Australia has played in it. And let me pay tribute to the work of the Secretary-General of the United Nations. A man who I must say I have dealt with for the first time on this issue and I have found totally professional, very intelligent, very effective and it's been a great professional pleasure to work with him. But I also want to pay some tribute to the President of Indonesia. Dr Habibie was the man who gave the people of East Timor the opportunity to vote for their future. He was the man who brought democracy to Indonesia and the world should acknowledge that. I acknowledge it and I congratulate him for it and I think the world should acknowledge it and congratulate him for it.

JOURNALIST:

We know that Australian troops could be mobilised and be in East Timor within 24 hours, is there a possibility that that can happen?

PRIME MINISTER:

This will be an operation that will be carried out under the guidelines and the instruction of the United Nations. Obviously there'll be a Field Commander and so forth. But we have to talk to the UN about that but we are ready and ready quickly.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, is there any subtext in the use of the word friendly nations?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the last time I heard that phrase used was in a conversation I had with President Habibie a week ago and we were one of the friendly countries in that conversation.

JOURNALIST:

What's your personal feeling at this time of twenty to two in the morning?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, my feelings are with the people of East Timor. I mean, they are the people that we should be concerned about, not me or any members of the Government. I mean, the people of East Timor have suffered a lot and the whole purpose of this has been to try and give them some deliverance from that. And we have tried to do that and they're the people we should be concerned about, not me or any other politician or any other person who presumes to walk upon the stage of public life. But our responsibility is to help the people who have been suffering in East Timor and also to think ahead of how important this is to the relationship between our two countries. We have a future together because history and geography and circumstance have cast us forever part of this part of the world and we have to try and make that work.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, we're a large step closer to sending troops into a very volatile and active situation, Australian troops. How do you feel about that or what are your feelingsà

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I have never had any doubt about the capacity or the professionalism of the Australian Defence Force. I don't lightly do anything that commits them to a theatre that might involve danger and that is why I took a certain stance in relation to the need for the Government of Indonesia to consent to the introduction of peacekeepers and that remains my position. But I have every confidence that the Australian Defence Force if they go overseas in any capacity will do their job professionally and will be a great credit to the Australian nation as they have in the past. They are a superb group of men and women and I have tremendous faith in the their professional capacity. I think that's it.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, is it too early to say who will lead the force?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the United Nations asked us a week ago to do so. Thank you.

JOURNALIST:

Can you say now about theà

PRIME MINISTER:

You mean as an individual?

JOURNALIST:

[Inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh look, no, I need some advice on that.

[ends]

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