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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 30438

Television Interview with Steve Liebmann, The Today Show

Photo of Howard, John

Howard, John

Period of Service: 11/03/1996 to 03/12/2007

More information about Howard, John on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 16/09/1999

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 30438

Subject(s): East Timor

16 September 1999

E&OE……………………………………………………………………………………

SUBJECTS: East Timor

JOURNALIST:

In Canberra, the Prime Minister John Howard. Prime Minister, good morning to you.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning Steve.

JOURNALIST:

It’s now 14 or 15 hours since the resolution was passed in New York. Do you yet know the final make up of the force and which countries are going to be represented?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I don’t. I have a good idea of it but there are a few contacts still to be confirmed and a few conversations to take place and in the end it is really up for other countries to formally announce their participation. But we are ready and it’s a question of, if we can, going in initially with some other countries as well. If that’s not possible well so be it but we would rather it be so because we have always said that we would like the participation especially of the ASEAN countries. But in the end, it becomes a trade off between speed of deployment and diversity of the force initially deployed.

JOURNALIST:

Okay. So am I right in saying if there are initial problems in assembling the multi-national force Australian troops will be the first wave into East Timor?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, I am sure there will be some others as well we’d just like as many as possible.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, the resolution appears to leave several issues unresolved apart from the exact size and the composition of the force. For example, is there a timetable for the withdrawal of Indonesian troops from East Timor and what about the fate of all those refugees in West Timor? Can you shed some light on that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, they are not the sort of things you would cover in a resolution because we don’t really know until we get in there the exact answers to some of those things. Initially, there will need to be, from a common sense point of view, some cooperation with the Indonesian forces. I would expect that based on what has been said and really thinking the thing through from a logical point of view I would expect a wind down, a fairly rapid wind down, of the Indonesian force participation. But once again you have to leave that flexible and it becomes an operational matter. As far as the people in west Timor are concerned well, if we can stabilise the situation in East Timor and subject to the cooperation of the Indonesian authorities because they still have authority over, sovereignty over, west Timor many of those people will want to return. And we would naturally encourage them to do so because their home is in East Timor and the purpose of the exercise is to stabilise their living conditions.

JOURNALIST:

Before he left New York Ali Alatas was saying that once the multi-national force arrives the Indonesian army will only play a role advising and liasing, no combat role. Is that your understanding?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, that is my understanding. I say it carefully because we are in uncharted waters to a large extent in this whole thing. But my guess is that having acquiesced in the introduction of an international peace force the Indonesian army will wind down its role. I hope we can work with them initially because from a common sense point of view that will be beneficial.

JOURNALIST:

Whilst it’s there though would it have the right to veto over operations?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. No, we have a peacekeeping mandate and it’s an ample mandate, it’s a very wide mandate and they wouldn’t, no.

JOURNALIST:

Can we trust the Indonesian military though to play a constructive and impartial role in the operation?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Steve, you know the history of this. It’s been very difficult and there have been a lot of commitments made that have been broken and it’s a dangerous operation. And we have to take those things as they come. I guess there will be some areas of very good cooperation, there could be other areas where the cooperation might not be very good at all. And that underlines the difficulty of the situation.

JOURNALIST:

Have you spoken to President Habibie in the last day or so?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I haven’t.

JOURNALIST:

Have you been trying to speak to him?

PRIME MINISTER:

Not in the last day or so, no. I did try to speak to him last weekend and he wasn’t available. And, of course, events have now moved on since then.

JOURNALIST:

Does it strike you as curious though that the leader of Indonesia does not want to speak with the leader of Australia?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. I think given the circumstances it doesn’t surprise me. I don’t think it’s something that will go on indefinitely. You have got to understand the sensitivities. We have got the result that we wanted and we don’t have any argument with the people of Indonesia and I remain of the view that Dr Habibie has been very courageous in what he has done. I mean, he still deserves credit for having agreed to give the people of East Timor the right of self-determination. No Indonesian leader has done that in the past and he deserves the gratitude of people for having done that.

JOURNALIST:

Do you think It’s going to be a long and a difficult campaign?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that’s very hard to predict. It has its dangerous elements and I hope not too much danger but I don’t want to dissemble with the Australian public or with the men who have to carry the burden of the responsibility.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, The Financial Review is reporting this morning that a senior Canberra official in a Canberra policy making department is spying for Indonesia. Have you got a comment on that?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I don’t comment on security matters.

JOURNALIST:

But it would concern you if it was true?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, of course but I don’t comment on security matters.

JOURNALIST:

Can I move onto the question of aid. When will food drops begin?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we had hoped today. The prospects of that I was told a few minutes ago are not all that bright because we are still having trouble getting certain assurances from the Indonesian military authorities. We can’t take the risk of the planes being shot down because they are needed for other things. But we want to get the aid in as soon as possible. Now, we are working on that overtime. We have got the approval of the Indonesian Minister but we haven’t got the approval of the Indonesian military. Mr Downer spoke to Mr Alatas about that last night in New York and he said that all of the political approvals had been given but there were some things on the ground that had to be cleared up. And this is one of the difficulties we have in this whole operation, there are no completely clear lines of command.

JOURNALIST:

Talking of things on the ground, once the aid gets into East Timor would you envisage our armed troops going up with the convoys to make sure that the food and the medicine reaches the refugees?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it’s part of their remit to do things like that. I don’t want to prescribe in advance exactly what people should do on the ground, that is an operational military matter. But I can tell you that under the United Nations resolutions one of the tasks of the force is to facilitate the provision of humanitarian assistance.

JOURNALIST:

Just a couple of quick final questions. Does the Government support calls for a war crimes tribunal?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, there are international processes and obviously they should be allowed to run.

JOURNALIST:

And yesterday there was some criticism of this Government and others in as much as the claim is, we misread the situation. Are you satisfied with the way our defence and foreign affairs people have handled this or should they have seen all the signs before the real trouble occurred?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, look, I am satisfied with the way they have handled this. I mean, this criticism proceeds on the basis that somehow or other we could have got a peacekeeping force into East Timor before the ballot. Now, that is nonsense. If we had, if the world had hammered hard for a peacekeeping force before the ballot there would have been no ballot. I mean, does anybody imagine that China, for example, a permanent member of the Security Council would have voted for a resolution to insert an international peacekeeping force into Indonesia before the ballot took place? Does anybody imagine that the Indonesian Government and military would have gone ahead with the ballot and also agreed before the ballot was held to the introduction of an international peacekeeping force? That is being wise after the event to an absurd degree. The Indonesians made it plain they wouldn’t have a peacekeeping force and it’s only been the extraordinary conjunction of events including a 78 per cent vote in favour of independence - that was the catalyst for the marshalling of international opinion as well as, of course, the events that followed that vote.

JOURNALIST:

Thanks for your time, Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

Pleasure.

[ends]

Transcript 30438