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Do the right thing in East Timor

By Helena Cobban / September 9, 1999



I hope that by the time you read this, the UN Security Council will have already sent a protective force to East Timor.

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I hope too that - with or without the help of the Indonesian military - the UN force can provide real protection to that country's 800,000 beleaguered people.

The stakes are high. The anti-independence militias in Timor have had significant help from Indonesian Army units there. If these militias continue their pogroms, then East Timor's duly voted-on independence will be aborted before it is delivered.

The UN, which organized the independence vote on Aug. 30, will look impotent. And if portions of the Indonesian Army are seriously out of control - as those in East Timor seem to be - then the prospects for the whole of that vast, multi-ethnic state look very grim. Indonesia, which is still reeling from economic crisis, faces a crucial presidential vote in November.

The case for international intervention in East Timor is urgent, and very strong. It is far stronger than the case for NATO's recent action in Kosovo - at many levels.

In the days after the Timorese went to the polls, thousands of thuggish pro-Indonesia gang members went on a deadly anti-independence, anti-UN rampage. They forced their way into Roman Catholic church sanctuaries and UN and Red Cross compounds. They killed scores of local people and trucked thousands more to unknown destinations. They torched the home of Nobel Prize-winning peacemaker Bishop Carlos Belo and fired on the car and residence of the Australian ambassador.

Indonesia's President B.J. Habibie, and his powerful military chief General Wiranto, have claimed that the thousands of Indonesian troops deployed in the territory had nothing to do with the rampage. That claim has been proven false in many cases. But it remains important that Habibie, Wiranto, and all Indonesia's major political figures have stated all along that they would respect the results of the August vote.

Now, Indonesia's leaders must be held to that promise. But since their credibility is so low, the UN should take the initiative and send peace-enforcement troops to East Timor.

It can perhaps invite the Indonesian troops already there to work with them as junior partners.

At the legal level, no one in the international community except Indonesia and Australia ever accepted Indonesia's claim that its 1975 military invasion gave it any "right" to rule over East Timor.

This year, both those countries agreed with the UN and the rest of the world that if the East Timorese voted for independence, they would accept that result. In the August vote, 78.5 percent did just that. (In Kosovo, meanwhile, no outside powers have yet contested Serbia's right to exercise broad sovereignty over the territory.)

Now, no outside governments have any basis on which to oppose the expressed desire of the East Timorese for self-rule. Logistically, East Timor is just 300 miles away from northern Australia - but four times that far from Indonesia's capital, Jakarta. Any force the UN sends in can be relatively easily sustained from Australia.

Hopefully, at the same time, the Indonesians will instruct local Army units to "get with" the UN's peace-enforcement program.

The international community has many other ways to persuade Jakarta to do the right thing.

With its ongoing financial woes, Indonesia needs the continued support of the World Bank and the IMF if it is ever to regain equilibrium. The United States plays a big role in those institutions - and is also a generous supplier of arms to the Indonesian military. The Clinton administration should now link those benefits directly to Indonesia's speedy cooperation in building real peace in East Timor.

This will be good for Indonesia, too. That country's 200 million people belong to 250 language groups and numerous religions. Intergroup conflicts riddle many of Indonesia's thousands of islands, and at least two larger groups are threatening to secede.

Next month a large new parliament with a strong anti-Habibie presence will convene in Jakarta. In November it votes for a new head of state. Habibie faces strong opposition from Megawati Sukarnoputri and from Islamic party heads.

What role will the military play in Indonesia in the crucial months ahead? If it splinters into factions - which may be what we have seen in Timor - then that is bad news. If it stays united, but gives under-the-table support to goons, that is also bad news.

But if it can show in East Timor that it is a united force prepared to act as a constitutional, stabilizing element in times of transition, then that is what Indonesia desperately needs. That is the only kind of army the US should support.

Its first test is now in East Timor.

*Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Charlottesville, Va.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society