Intervention in East Timor

When I reported in 1948 for The Christian Science Monitor from Indonesia - then still the Netherlands Indies - the Dutch were alternating between fighting and negotiating with the Sukarno nationalists.

The Dutch were accused of foot-dragging. They were even threatened with cancellation of American Marshall Plan aid when they tried to hold out for creating a federation for the vast archipelago. They argued that without substantial autonomy the outer islands would be subjected to a new form of colonialism by the aggressive Javanese majority.

Having gained independence in 1949, the Jakarta government proceeded to take over ethnically alien Dutch New Guinea and, in 1975, invaded East Timor, which had just won its independence from Portugal. Today the half-million Timorese, mainly Christian, present the ardent post-World War II decolonizers with the question: How now decolonization?

This question was submerged by a half-century of cold war, during which President Ford, visiting Jakarta in 1975, in effect gave a green light to the anticommunist Gen. Suharto to invade East Timor.

This imposes on the United States a special moral responsibility.

In Bosnia, in Kosovo, in Rwanda, the United Nations and NATO managed to obtain permission from the sovereign power before engaging in military intervention.

In East Timor, if there is intervention, it will probably have to be without Indonesian consent and maybe against Indonesian resistance.

Note how carefully the Clinton administration, so loud in asserting human rights over sovereign rights, is treading now. In Hanoi (of all places) Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said international intervention in East Timor may be necessary, but the US is not advocating it without Indonesian permission.

Not now anyway, just as President Clinton ruled out sending American troops to fight in Kosovo. But, along with the other Western powers, so articulate in proclaiming Western ideals, the US is presented by this persecuted little community with the question: What price decolonization now? What price self-determination now?

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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