Australia's mission of mercy - a risky move

Australia will lead a peacekeeping force approved by the United Nations

- the deployment of a multinational peacekeeping force in East Timor as soon as this weekend - led by Australian troops - is a diplomatic coup for the Aussies.

It's also a controversial and risky gambit by Australia to assume a leadership role it has long sought in the region.

"There are very major shifts now about to take place," according to Michael van Langenberg, a foreign-policy expert at the University of Sydney. "I don't think we have seen this before.... This has certainly increased Australia's public profile both domestically and internationally."

The mission, approved by the United Nations Security Council early yesterday morning, instructs the soldiers to use "all force necessary" to secure the island and enable humanitarian aid to reach hundreds of thousands now at risk of starvation.

Australia will lead about 7,000 peacekeepers, with nations including the US, Britain, New Zealand, Thailand, Malaysia, and South Korea pledging to contribute troops. But at least half of the force will be Australian - and probably more than that in the first days, because they're the most prepared.

And that may pose problems. Having identified Australia as firmly siding with the Timorese in favor of independence, pro-Indonesia militias say that Australians could be singled out.

"The PPI [Command of the Pro-Integration Struggle] will eat the hearts of those that come to East Timor," PPI leader Filomeno Kornai said yesterday. "We reject a peacekeeping force from Australia and those countries which have betrayed the referendum of Aug. 30 [when East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia]."

The Indonesian-backed militias aren't the only ones expressing discontent with the prospect of Australian peacekeepers. Demonstrators in Jakarta have burned the Australian flag and a likeness of Australian Prime Minister John Howard. Also, an Australian trade office in the Indonesian province of Surabaya was attacked by crowds angry about Australia's role.

Still, the Indonesian military has indicated it would hand over control to peacekeepers when they arrive. But Gen. Maj. Kiki Syahnakri, Indonesia's military commander in East Timor, said his troops would take part in restoring order.

Indonesian reaction has been fueled in part by a remarkable shift in Australian policy. For years, Australian governments nurtured a close friendship with the power elite who run Indonesia, and Australian prime ministers talked about their "special relationship" with their northern neighbor. In addition, the countries' militaries cooperated.

Australia backed former President Suharto when he took power in a 1966 coup, and Australia is the only industrialized country to have formally recognized Indonesia's 1975 annexation of East Timor as its 27th province.

But in the last 10 days, the entire character of that link has changed as a result of the crisis in East Timor. "I think there's a reminder in this that your relationship with countries can change as circumstances change," said Mr. Howard this week. "You don't have permanent friends; you have permanent interests."

Australia's change in position has come about as it has struggled to find a leadership role in Asia. Its part in helping found the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group (APEC), which has become the major trade organization in the region, has contributed to Australia taking a leading role on economic issues. But in the diplomatic arena, Australia has been forced to tread softly - until now.

It was Australia that took the lead role in criticizing Indonesia during the APEC summit in New Zealand this past week. Howard, furthermore, has quietly claimed credit for pushing US President Clinton into making the statement that is thought to have prodded Indonesia into reluctantly accepting a peacekeeping force.

Although Indonesia's other Asian neighbors, with the exception of the Philippines, have stayed mum about the recent atrocities in East Timor, one Western diplomat said yesterday it was clear none of them liked what was going on.

"Australia is not alone in being concerned about East Timor," the diplomat said. "There's a fair amount of disquiet in Asia. [But] it's not the Asian way to be publicly critical of other countries."

"In terms of peacekeeping, this is certainly a much higher profile than Australia has had on recent events," the diplomat continued. "But then this is after all Australia's neck of the woods.... If refugees are spilling out of Bosnia, they are not going to spill into Australia. Whereas refugees spilling out of East Timor are going to end up in Darwin."

The Australian public appears ready for the mission. Two polls released this week showed more than 70 percent of Australians supported putting peacekeepers in East Timor.

But it's not clear that Australians have grasped the full implications of the mission or its possible consequences. "I don't think the Australian public knows what we're getting into," one official in Canberra said this week. "This isn't just a matter of weeks; this is years."

The annual cost of the mission has been put anywhere from $300 million to $500 million (Australian; US$195 million to $325 million). Politicians on all sides agree the crisis means the country's defense budget, now about 1.7 percent of gross domestic product, will be increased.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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