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Hyatt Regency Hotel, Auckland, New Zealand, 12 September 1999: transcript of press conference [East Timor]



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PRIME MINISTER

 

Sunday, 12 September 1999

 

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER

THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP

PRESS CONFERENCE - HYATT REGENCY HOTEL

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND

 

E&OE…………………………………………………………………………………

 

SUBJECTS: East Timor

 

Well, since we spoke yesterday I have a number of things to report. You all will have seen the remarks made by General Wiranto by other spokesmen and women for the Indonesian Government and also by President Clinton this morning here in Auckland. I think all of those are positive signs and they indicate some sources of encouragement but it is very important that they only be seen in that context. It is still necessary to have a supportive response from the Indonesian Government if a peacekeeping force which is now so clearly desirable and so clearly needed is to go into Indonesia. And that is a matter that naturally has to be resolved by the Indonesian Government.

I had the opportunity this morning of meeting the Prime Minister of Thailand. He reaffirmed his country’s willingness to participate in the peacekeeping operation. The details of that participation are, of course, a matter for him to announce but I think it is significant that we now have indications from three ASEAN countries, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, of participation in any peacekeeping force. And it does mean that you are seeing emerging as potential participants if a peacekeeping force is to go into East Timor you are seeing emerging a very broadly based force that quite properly includes a number of participants from the ASEAN area. And it’s always been our desire that that be the case because this is an important issue for the ASEAN countries as it is an important issue for Australia. And it’s very important that from Indonesia’s point of view and from the point of view of her longer term relations with the region that this be seen as an activity which has brought together a broad cross-section of opinion not only in the region but from around the world.

I had the opportunity also of seeing the Economic Coordination Minister, Dr Ginandjar, from Indonesia. He is here on Dr Habibie’s behalf. He is a senior member of the Indonesian administration. That enabled me to put again the case that Australia has been arguing publicly and privately over the past few days of how it was in Indonesia’s interests as well as the interests of the people of East Timor that this matter be resolved and the legitimate concerns of the international community be met. I reaffirmed to him that although on this issue there was obviously a strain in the relationship and obviously the Australian Government had a very different view from many of the views expressed in Jakarta that we desire on a medium and longer term basis to have good relations with the Government and the people of Indonesia. That the argument that we have is not with the people of Indonesia and that I hoped that there could be a proper understanding on the basis that was satisfactory to the world community and satisfactory to Australia reached in relation to the issue.

I have had further discussions with the Secretary-General of the United Nations to exchange, I suppose, what you broadly call whatever intelligence we have on the subject and I will be seeing President Clinton later on today. So the situation, as I say, has obviously been benefited and aided by the indications that have come from General Wiranto and I thought the statement made by President Clinton was very positive and very helpful and very pleasing. But I don’t want to put any greater store on developments than that. And it is very important that in a situation that is moving quickly, and I know you all, sort of, want that succinct definitive grab that declares something or other but it’s not that sort of issue where I can deliver those succinct definitive grabs, certainly not every day anyway.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

Prime Minister, are you aware that in the last few hours that the Indonesian Ambassador to the United Nations has said no to an international…

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Yeah, I saw that speech. I saw it when he was delivering it.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

So you discount those views?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, I think what you have to do in these situations is you, you know, you watch CNN and you get advice from all around the place and you just keep going.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

But in other words, you put more weight, more…

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, I have asked you to listen to what I have said.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

Have you spoken to the Secretary-General since the Security Council meeting on the subject and what’s your assessment of where the UN is at this point?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, I think the Security Council, yeah, the Security Council had met, yeah. It was after the meeting. It was a good discussion and I don’t want to say any more than that. It was a good discussion.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

[Inaudible]…you have clearly got now a broad based…

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Very broad based.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

[Inaudible]

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, obviously a significant contribution from Australia. A quite significant contribution in, sort of, aggregate assets from the United States. The form of that contribution is a matter for the Americans to announce but as I said yesterday our military people have said that they are very pleased with the proposals that the Americans are putting forward. I think quite a significant contribution from Malaysia. Portugal, I am told, has offered a couple of battalions. I think a reasonably significant contribution from Thailand. And the Canadians and the British and the New Zealanders are also making significant, although obviously nowhere near the contribution that we are making. I think the Malaysians could be making quite a significant contribution but once again I know that they are making a significant contribution but the precise form of it is really something for them to announce. But I have been…the Secretary-General has announced that he has spoken to Dr Mahathir and he has indicated a willingness to participate in a quite significant way and that’s welcome, very welcome indeed.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

There don’t appear to be any US troops involved.

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, I think you ought to wait and see what the Americans say.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

Well, I think President Clinton has given some indication recently…

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, I am not aware of the indication that you are talking about.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

Well, in what he said when he was having a meeting with the Japanese….

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, I wasn’t there.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

Prime Minister, he didn’t indicate there were any….

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, just…I think it’s better you wait and see what they actually say publicly. And the important thing is that our military have had some lengthy discussions with them and they are very pleased with what the Americans are offering.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

But is that your understanding that there are…

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, my understanding is that it’s appropriate for the President of the United States or the Defence Secretary to indicate what they are going to contribute.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

Well, when are they are going to do this?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, I don’t know you ought to ask them.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

Is there any likelihood Australia will be dropping food parcels into the hills or…

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, look that suggestion has been made and I am having that examined. We have got to consider the practicality of it and the desirability in a situation like that of not exposing people to danger and of not…the thing not being, in that sense, counterproductive. But there are a lot of suggestions being made and obviously we are trying to respond to all of them in a sympathetic, compassionate way. But the most effective thing that we can do is to get some resolution on the main issue.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

What did the Prime Minister of Singapore say to you, Mr Howard? Did he give you a definitive no…

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

I think you ought to speak to the Prime Minister of Singapore about his country’s response. It’s not for me to announce a countries responses.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

Prime Minister, General Wiranto, while he’s given some indication that they may be prepared to accept peacekeeping troops, he said that Indonesia would like to be able to choose which countries were involved. Is there any reason to believe that Australia would not be involved in that and if so would Australia still support a peacekeeping force?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, we have made our position very clear and there won’t be any alteration. But look, I know you want answers to all of these questions, I understand that. Will you please understand that in a situation like this which is changing every hour I am not going to try and sit in judgement and try and read the tea leaves of every single statement that’s made by every single person speaking on behalf of the Indonesian or indeed any other government. Now, I am simply not going to do that and it’s just a futile exercise. He’s made a statement. You know our position. My assessment is that the situation has been aided by what he has said and aided by what the American President has said. It is obvious from what I have told you and what other people have said that there’s going to be a quite a broadly based participation in a peacekeeping operation. And you know what I have said about Australia’s involvement and you know my response to the invitation of the Secretary-General for Australia to lead it. Now, I remind you of that and I am not going to try and put an interpretive response on anything that General Wiranto or anybody else has said.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

Just to go back to Ross’ question before. What President Clinton did say was that he’d be offering, or the US would be offering air transport and communications. Does that satisfy you?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, let me put it this way, in the discussions that I had with him things have gone beyond that. But the exact step to which they have gone beyond that it is not for me to say out of courtesy to the Americans but I can tell you that the offer by the Americans are very pleasing to the Australian Defence people. Now, can I…I can’t say any more than that. I mean, I know you are fascinated by this but, I mean, can I just tell you that the Americans have had a lengthy discussion with our people. Our people are very pleased with what the Americans are offering.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

Prime Minister, you mentioned the Philippines, or you didn’t mention the Philippines…

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, I mentioned the Philippines yesterday and the Philippines are, I am not quite sure of the precise extent of their involvement you really have to ask them.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

Prime Minister, do the upgraded intelligence assessments that you are hearing report concerns about a large scale transmigration from East to West Timor?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, I don’t know that I, sort of, can give you a definite response to that because I know the reports are mixed. I mean, a lot of the reports are based on anecdotes. Look, it is a very confused, distressing, tragic situation. And there are some reports to that effect. Some of those reports are more alarmist than others. It’s fair to say that the situation has got worse over the past few days and that’s one of the reasons why the UN Mission has been so concerned has perhaps played a role in what General Wiranto’s response has been, I don’t know. But it just all adds up to one undeniable reality and that is that the existing arrangements are for whatever combination of reasons inadequate to stop murder and terror occurring and chaos and disorder. And that in that situation the presence of an international peacekeeping force is desirable indeed it is imperative. Now, that has been our position for some time. It is now clearly the American position, it is clearly the position of all countries that contributed to the Security Council debate with the exception of the Indonesian representative. So it all points in one direction and every effort of the international community should now be directed towards achieving that result because if you want short-term relief and short-term assistance to the people of East Timor that is the goal that should be striven towards which is where all of our efforts are directed. And I am far more interested in seeing if we can achieve that goal than virtually anything else.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

Having spoken to the Secretary-General, Prime Minister, what’s your understanding of whether the UN is prepared to stay on in East Timor and if so for how long?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well Karen, the UN has already demonstrated an incredible commitment in what they’ve put up and I’m quite certain that the UN wants to stay there as long as possible. I can’t put a time on that. I don’t think they themselves have made up their minds, but they want to stay as long as possible. They would like to stay until Timor is in the process of transition to independence, the only reason there’s been a doubt cast on their staying is because of the deterioration in the security position, but they certainly want to stay as long as possible. Whether in the short term it’s possible to say - whether they can say - well, we’ll have to go by such and such a time unless the situation improves, I don’t know. But it’s still very difficult, but all of my mail as recently as a discussion with the Secretary-General a few hours ago, is to the effect they want to stay as long as possible.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

Mr Howard, tomorrow when you go out to the museum and the Leaders’ Retreat, do you expect that you’ll be focussing largely on Timor, or on trade issues, or what do you think…

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

I think it’s fair to say that the formal discussions will focus on the trade and economic agenda of APEC but this subject will come up in all sorts of corridor, peripheral, in the margins, way. I don’t think it’s the sort of thing where you get into a formal discussion or resolution but in a sense, can I say that that’s really academic. I mean, what really matters is what people who matter in this decide to do, not whether it’s on the damn agenda or not, I mean that’s really not the point.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

What is the attitude of the Australian government to the suspension or scaling back of World Bank and IMF programmes of assistance to Indonesia?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well the attitude of the Australian government is that those sort of things should remain on the agenda - should remain on the table. I believe that if we are to achieve what we want to achieve and what we all agree should be achieved, then the methods that are being employed at the moment are more likely in the short term than any other approach to bring that result about. But that doesn't mean to say if that doesn’t work at some other stage you wouldn’t look at something else. But frankly, if we’re at point A and we want to get as quickly as possible to point B, which is the peacekeeping operation, can I tell you what we are now doing is more likely to achieve that than cluttering it up with something else. That doesn’t mean to say I regard those things as unimportant, but it’s a question of a single minded focus.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

…graphic phrase the other day that you wanted to see ‘boots on the ground’, are you now satisfied that…

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

I’m satisfied on the basis of the advice given by the Australian military that the American contribution will be more than satisfactory, but it is not for me to describe the detail of that contribution, it is for the Americans to do that, and then you can question me.

 

JOURNALIST:

Can you get some clarification when they might do that for us?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, you try!

 

JOURNALIST:

 

Well, you’re seeing the President.

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

I will.

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

When do you expect the Secretary-General to speak to Dr Habibie, or more generally, when do you expect the Indonesians to respond to General Wiranto’s comments on it being an option of being discussed?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Look, Michael, please understand. The situation is this where you’re ringing people the whole time. I can’t tell you who’s going to ring Habibie next or who’s going to ring the Secretary-General next, I mean I don’t know. All I’m saying is I’m ringing the people I need to ring; I’m talking to the people I need to talk to; we are very satisfied with what is emerging as far as a peacekeeping role is concerned. Very satisfied, including in relation to the American contribution and we’ll have a very interesting series of comment pieces on whether it matched this or that description, but the important thing is, is it a worthwhile contribution and is it something that’s going to support an effective peacekeeping operation and on the information provided to me it certainly is, and that’s not my political judgement, that’s the judgement made by the ADF who I rely on in relation to these matters. They are a lot happier now than they were. Very happy.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

Prime Minister, you mentioned setting up an international humanitarian trust fund. How will that work?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

I haven’t had a chance to figure the detail of it. I merely alluded to the concept. The concept is that you might, and it has been suggested to me that the Japanese have talked about this, you might have a situation where countries for a combination of reasons don’t want to or feel able to make a military contribution, then they could make a financial contribution and out of that fund you could provide humanitarian assistance or perhaps defray the cost of the military operation.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

Prime Minister, you’re obviously working very hard on this. How frustrating is it to you that despite all this diplomatic activity and telephone conversations etc. the situation on the ground in Timor and in Jakarta is still the same as it was several days ago?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, frustration is the wrong word. I would say saddening. I mean it is upsetting. Nobody, least of all me and I’m in a position to know some of the details, as I guess all of you are too, it is a tragic, unhappy situation and I’m working as hard as I can to try and bring about the state of affairs most likely in the short term to give some relief and that is the injection of an international peacekeeping operation. Now all of my waking hours and more are directed to achieving that. I can tell you I feel a little happier today than I did yesterday and happier still than I felt on Friday. I think that the situation is better now than what it was 48 hours ago, but I’m not going to make any outlandish claims that the problem’s been solved or it’s inevitably going to be solved, all I can say is that it’s somewhat better because of a number of the things I’ve drawn attention to and I think it’s very important that now we’re on a particular path, that we stay on that path and I know a lot of other paths have been suggested but sometimes when you do that you lose the momentum and I just think we should single-mindedly focus on what we’re trying to do at the moment and if that doesn’t work, then we have to look at other ways. It doesn’t mean we rule other things out, but it’s just that right at the moment if you clutter up what you’re trying to do with other proposals, you can perhaps lose the momentum and if people start saying well, if you’re going to do that we mightn’t do that and it all gets very complicated.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

Prime Minister, there have been a lot of reports out of East Timor about the size of the toll - up to 20,000. Do you have any clear idea of how great the toll has actually been or what’s in your intelligence?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, it is clear that there have been significant numbers of deaths, just how many I don’t know because it’s impossible in these chaotic circumstances to properly measure the scale of the slaughter. But its obviously happened and I don’t think we’ll know the exact size of it for some time. Its clearly happened; there’s undeniable evidence of that, undeniable evidence.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

Tens of thousands?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, I can’t say that Piers. I can’t because I don’t know. I’ve got no way at this stage of verifying that - I don’t think anybody has at the moment any way of verifying it and certainly we don’t.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

...expected a development on peacekeepers while you were here in Auckland [inaudible]

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, I would like it to have happened last night. I mean anything’s possible but Fleur I’m not going to use some phrase which is then interpreted as some declaration by me that something is going to happen by a particular time. At the moment, we have a situation as I have described it. It is better than what it was yesterday, I’m encouraged by what was said by General Wiranto, I’m encouraged by what was said by President Clinton, but we have not, as I speak, had an indication from the Indonesian government that it’s going to let in peacekeepers. Now until we get that, I think it is foolish of anybody to say well this and that statement, even by General Wiranto, or the President of the United States, or John Howard or anybody else means that, I mean until you actually have it and you should know in situations like this that circumstances can change very rapidly. What I can say to you is that if the circumstances elapse where a peacekeeping operation is possible, then the people, the composition of that peacekeeping operation from Australia’s point of view will be very very sound, very broadly based, very strong and very effective, now I can say that. But the other issues, I can’t say, because they are not directly within my power and authority.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

Prime Minister, your discussions with Mr Ginandjar about medium and long term relations [inaudible] have the differences we’ve had with Indonesia over this issue over the last couple of weeks meant that that medium to long term relationship is going to be different, that some things, for instance the security relationship, that perhaps we won’t go back to where we were when we finally work through this?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, I think it would be foolish at this stage when we’re dealing with a very, very significant issue, a major issue, a critical issue, which directly involves a relationship, I think it’s quite impossible for me to calmly sit down and say, well in six months time I think the relationship will be this or this. What I made clear to Dr Ginandjar and what I’d make clear to you and what I’d make clear to Dr Habibie, is that from a long term point of view we want to have a positive, strong relationship with Indonesia and the Indonesian people. We’ve tried to do that, we’re going to have our differences, we’ve clearly had a difference on this, but our argument is not with the people of Indonesia. We recognise the importance of developing a sound, broadly based relationship with them and we’ll deal with that relationship and the character of it after the sense of crisis surrounding this issue has passed. I think to try and mould a long term, mould your thoughts about a long term relationship when you’re still in the middle of this is impossible.

Last question, then I’d better go.

 

JOURNALIST:

 

I just wanted to ask why the international community is still waiting for approval from Indonesia given that the situation is deteriorating, you talk about murder, mayhem, Indonesia’s sovereignty over Timor isn’t recognised anyway.

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Where are you from?

 

JOURNALIST:

 

CNBC.

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well the reason that the world community is doing that is because the alternative to it, as I understand it, in sort of plain language, is an invasion, which is an entirely different military proposition and certainly not one that we’re giving assent to. I speak on behalf of Australia and I think people who are running around saying well all you’ve got to do is invade and the problem is solved, I think are being unrealistic. Thank You.

 

[ends]

 

 

md 1999-09-14  10:11