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AUS: Howard On East Timor

29 September 1999

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP TELEVISION INTERVIEW WITH CNN

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister Howard, thanks very much for coming in today.

PRIME MINISTER:

It's a pleasure.

JOURNALIST:

Well, first off, why did Australia take such a strong lead in promoting this multi-national force for East Timor?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we took the lead to encourage the United Nations to establish a multi-national force because of two things. Because of the overwhelming vote for independence in East Timor and because for a combination of reasons the Indonesian security forces were unable to stop a quite appallingly high level of bloodshed and destruction in East Timor. We worked very hard to get international support. It's an operation that we are engaged in under the umbrella of the United Nations and it's an operation that I am very pleased to say involves the participation of our friends and neighbours in the region. And importantly it's an operation that occurred because of the agreement of the Indonesian Government. People should remember that the United Nations established the multi-national force in the end because the Indonesian Government agreed to the introduction of a peace enforcement force under the sponsorship of the United Nations.

JOURNALIST:

Some countries here in Asia have expressed concern over the more aggressive, perceived aggressive policy now here in Asia. What is Australia's role here in the Asia-Pacific?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we don't have an aggressive policy in the Asia-Pacific and I don't believe that within the leadership of many ASEAN countries is there a belief that we are being aggressive. We have very close relations with countries like Thailand and the Philippines and Singapore and we have always sought a good relationship with Indonesia. I acknowledge that the relationship with Indonesia is under strain at the moment because of what is happening but over the years Australia has been a very good friend of Indonesia's. We have understood Indonesia's position. We have tried to help Indonesia in her times of economic and other difficulty. We obviously had views about East Timor which are not popular within sections of the Indonesian political leadership but you must remember that Indonesia herself is going through a big transition. There are many people in Indonesia who understand what Australia has done, bear Australia no ill-will and work towards the day when our relationship will be closer and better than it necessarily is at the present time.

JOURNALIST:

Okay. So if your foreign policy here is not aggressive then what exactly is it? What is the role of Australia here in the region?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the role of Australia in the region is one of being an active participant and an active partner in the affairs of the region. Australia brings particular assets to the region. We have links with Europe and North America but we have very profound personal and geographical and political links with the nations of Asia as well. We don't see ourselves as being anybody else's proxy in the region but we do see ourselves as participating in a constructive fashion.

Now, on occasions that is going to mean that some of the stances we take people don't agree with. But people should not see what we have done in East Timor as being in any way an aggressive, assertive thing but rather the willingness of us to help solve a difficult regional problem. To stand up for what we, not only we think is right but indeed a lot of other leaders in the region think are right. I mean, when I saw the President of Korea when he was on a recent visit to Australia he was expressing very strong concern to me about what was happening in East Timor and his level of concern about that as President of Korea was as great as the level of concern felt in Australia.

So concern about issues related to freedom and human rights are not exclusive to Australians and we have never argued they are or should be. There are concerns felt about those issues throughout the region. And we see ourselves not as playing a stick-wielding role but certainly as we are economically strong and we do bring particular assets to our association with the region, we can play a very active and positive role but it's always got to be a role in cooperation with our friends and partners in the region. And you'll remember that in the lead up to the establishment of the UN force I kept making it very clear that there was no way that Australia would allow any of her troops to be involved in East Timor without two things occurring. The first of those was, you had to get the support of the United Nations and the second was that you had to get the acquiescence of Indonesia. And we held out against any kind of deployment without those two things occurring. Now, that, I think, was a sensible, measured, calm approach. It certainly wasn't the approach of a country seeking to be aggressive but equally it was the approach of a country that was ready to play an active role and if asked by the United Nations a leadership role in relation to a particular issue. Now, that is what I think Australia, if the circumstances require it, we should be ready to act but only in cooperation with our friends and neighbours and assuming responsibilities that we are able to discharge.

JOURNALIST:

How committed is Australia to East Timor? There apparently is hundreds of millions of dollars that need to be spent to rebuild the lives of the East Timorese. How long will you be staying there and how much are you willing to put up for rebuilding their lives?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we are willing to do quite a lot. We are not willing to carry it all but we accept that because East Timor is very close to Australia that the rest of the world would expect Australia to carry a fair share of the burden. But we do look to others. We can't be left with all of the burden. As far as the involvement of our forces are concerned, well it's our expectation that after a period of time when the immediate goals of the INTERFET force have been achieved, that we should then go onto the next phase which is a United Nations Blue Helmet peacekeeping operation. Now we' ll play a part in that. Of necessity it would be proportionately a lesser part than the part we are playing in the peace enforcement operation, because we were ready to be involved and deployed immediately in relation to that, whereas it has understandably taken other countries a little more time to fill up the full measure of their contributions. Although we're very pleased with the involvement of countries like the Philippines and the Thais, and many other countries have been quite heavily involved very quickly.

JOURNALIST:

There have apparently been raids on anti-independent militia strongholds in East Timor. But the reports coming out of there that a lot of refugees in West Timor have been harassed. So what kind of multinational force could, should, and what should they be doing there?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we don't have any, well the multinational force has no authority to go into West Timor, none whatsoever. Its mandate from the United Nations is restricted to East Timor. West Timor remains unambiguously part of Indonesian sovereignty and any attempt to go across the border to conduct operations there would certainly provoke a very hostile reaction from Indonesia. We are encouraging the Indonesians to allow the free return of refugees from West Timor to East Timor. And we hope that that does occur. We think it's very important for Indonesia's future reputation in the world and future relations with Australia and other countries, that it continue to cooperate with the international community. The international community fundamentally wants to help Indonesia through her present economic difficulties. Australia certainly does. And I know that we are walking a very difficult path at the moment because there is sensitivity in Indonesia about the presence of foreign troops in East Timor. On the other hand the presence of those troops is utterly and completely justified and they are carrying out a mission under United Nations authority which has strong world and regional support, and has very strong support within Australia.

JOURNALIST:

What about the East Timorese refugees in Darwin Australia? Will you give them a choice to stay in Australia if they choose to do so?

PRIME MINISTER:

At present what we are doing is giving them a safe haven in Australia, similar to what we offered the Kosovar refugees. The intention, if circumstances of comparative normality return, we would see them going back to East Timor. Remember that the East Timor to which they will be returning we all hope will be a very different East Timor from which they fled. In the meantime we'll look after them. We'll give them a safe haven, but we're not considering permanent residency.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, Indonesia's Trade Minister apparently has rejected meeting his Australian counterpart in Singapore. Are billions of dollars in trade relations at risk here because of Australia's role in East Timor?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it would be too alarmist and absolutely premature to be talking about millions or billions of dollars of trade being at risk. I believe there are people in both countries who see the wisdom of retaining economic links. My understanding is that the Indonesian minister had to return to his country because of either a Cabinet or parliamentary meeting, and the nature of the circumstances where the meeting fell through I think have been somewhat exaggerated. We know that there is tension in the relationship. That is unavoidable. That was inevitable once Australia took the view that, for the reasons I've outlined, an international force was needed in East Timor. Now we knew that but the alternative was in effect to do nothing and we didn't think that was an alternative. But we are trying to maintain, despite that tension, a line of communication with the Indonesian Government and the Indonesian people. And what we're saying to them is that, look to the longer term, understand that there are many people in Australia as there are in Indonesia who believe that as close neighbours we do have a joint interest in a strong working relationship. And we've achieved quite a lot in the past. We may have different political systems. We may have different attitudes on a number of things. But that should not prevent us from having an effective and close relationship in the future. But we can't be unrealistic and pretend that what is happening in East Timor doesn't impose a strain and a tension on the bilateral relationship. That is unavoidable.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible] Prime Minister John Howard of Australia. We thank you again for being with us this morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

[ends]

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