Posted Sun Nov 16, 2008
Former Indonesian president BJ Habibie says a letter from then-Australian prime minister John Howard pushed him into acting quickly on independence for East Timor.
In 1998 Mr Howard wrote a letter to Mr Habibie supporting a move towards East Timorese independence within a decade.
Mr Habibie has told ABC 1's The Howard Years that the letter pushed him into a snap decision which led to the independence referendum being held six months later.
"In this letter he suggests that I have to solve [East Timor] as how the French have solved their colonies in the Pacific New Caledonia - he suggests it," he said.
"That means prepare them for 10 years or whatever and then after that give them their independence.
"So as I read that I was upset."
Mr Howard has admitted that no one thought he would move that quickly.
"The direction in which he travelled was the same direction that was requested in the letter," he said.
"It's just that he went much further. He was 20 miles instead of five."
Mr Habibie would not agree to peacekeepers being deployed to East Timor before the referendum and describes the suggestion from Mr Howard as an "insult".
In August 1999 the East Timorese people voted for independence but pro-Indonesian militia killed hundreds of people not long after.
Eventually Mr Howard secured Mr Habibie's agreement to let a peacekeeping force into the country, but he had concerns there could be a clash with Indonesian troops.
"I had in the back of my mind they might have an encounter with the Indonesians, there might be a firefight right at the beginning, you could lose 20 or 30 troops in a clash, and it was tough," he said.
Then-foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer says the government arranged to have US troops on standby in case the conflict over East Timor's independence ended up in war with Australia.
"We had American forces that could've been deployed pretty quickly as well from the Pacific, so we did have contingency plans," he said.