A tiny island earns the world's spotlight

East Timorese activists used to complain that their fight for independence from Indonesia suffered terribly from obscurity. If the world really knew their plight, they argued, it would step in and save them.

Now the days of obscurity are over. And the world is about to intercede, in the form of a multinational force now being assembled with US help under a United Nations mandate.

If all goes well, half of an island in the vast archipelago that constitutes Indonesia will become the world's newest nation.

To be sure, East Timor is pretty obscure - unless you happen to recall that Captain William Bligh, the bad guy in the classic film "Mutiny on the Bounty," came ashore on Timor after being set adrift by his crew.

When the multinational force arrives, perhaps as early as this weekend, its soldiers will come ashore with much more fanfare than Bligh received.

They may not get a smooth welcome.

"I don't think there's an understanding among people clamoring for intervention that to introduce peacekeepers into an environment where anarchy rules is a recipe for disaster," warns Robert Karniol, the Asia-Pacific editor of Jane's Defence Weekly.

Here is a primer on why East Timor is in the news and what the latest attempt at global peacekeeping will have to address:

A history of difference

Indonesia - the world's fourth most populous nation - gives fuller meaning to the notion of diversity. A collection of cultures, languages, and religions, this set of islands is unified by a 50-year-old identity as a modern nation and a military intent on unity - and not much else.

What really brought Indonesia together was the Dutch, who colonized what were once known as the East Indies beginning in the 17th century. They evicted the Portuguese, the region's first European exploiters, who refused to let go of one last toehold: East Timor. Portugal held onto its distant possession well after the surrounding islands had won their independence from Holland in 1949.

But the Portuguese began to lose interest in East Timor in the mid-1970s.

The government in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, set about encouraging the East Timorese to join the country. When a local revolutionary movement called Fretilin responded by declaring independence, Indonesia invaded in 1975 and annexed the territory the following year.

The invasion took place just as America's involvement in Vietnam ended, and 10 years after a brutal period of anticommunist killing in Indonesia that may have claimed as many as 500,000 lives. Jakarta claimed Fretilin was communist, a charge historians have not been able to substantiate.

But the Indonesian military never fully brought the Timorese into submission. Several hundred Fretilin guerrillas, for instance, remain under arms in the territory's mountainous jungles.

The cost of resistance has been high. Analysts estimate that as many as 250,000 East Timorese have died as a result of Indonesia's attempted conquest, many as a result of famine.

How the world reacted

Some analysts have called the killing genocidal, noting that the territory started out with fewer than 700,000 people, according to the last census under Portuguese rule. But world reaction has been tepid.

For one thing, the cause of fighting alleged communism covered a multitude of human rights abuses. For another, argues scholar John Taylor in his 1991 book, "Indonesia's Forgotten War," powerful entities have had reason to let Indonesia have its way:

*The US has long been interested in maintaining ties with Southeast Asia's largest country, which controls strategically important sea lanes that connect the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

*Australia has wanted to pursue friendly ties with its populous northern neighbor and in 1989 signed a deal with Indonesia to explore for oil and gas in waters near East Timor.

*The Roman Catholic church, drawn into the controversy because of the Portuguese legacy of Catholic Timorese, has not wanted to alienate mostly Muslim Indonesia by agitating over East Timor.

Still, the UN refused to recognize the annexation as legitimate and the issue of East Timor has been an irritant in Indonesia's international relations.

In May 1998, the man who authorized the invasion, President Suharto, was forced to step down amid widespread protests against his authoritarian rule and economic mismanagement.

His successor, B.J. Habibie, startled the world this year by offering the East Timorese what they had long demanded: a referendum on their future.

What's at stake

The world is intervening today because a humanitarian crisis is unfolding in East Timor as a result of that referendum, which was held Aug. 30. The residents of the territory voted overwhelmingly to reject a plan to stay part of Indonesia, prompting pro-Indonesia forces to retaliate with violence.

It's impossible to know for certain, but analysts speculate that thousands of people have died in this campaign of terror. Many more people - perhaps as many as 200,000, or a quarter of East Timor's present population - have been forced from their homes.

These forces are militias that were created by Indonesia's military to help fight Fretilin. The military still seems to be behind the violence, although its motive is in dispute.

One well-placed Indonesian military officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, says, "It is not true that the [military] is fully supporting these militias."

Salim Said, a Jakarta-based analyst of military affairs, notes that the militias are partly made up of men who serve as soldiers and police officers, meaning that it is hard to tell the level of official support for the violence.

Whether they are rogues or military operatives, the militias will constitute the biggest potential threat to the multinational force, which will be led by Australia.

Mr. Said and the military officer also say many Indonesians believe the vote was unfairly carried out by the UN, and that Australians in particular are to blame for "irregularities." Recently the Australian government has switched from supporting Indonesia's integration of East Timor to backing the territory's independence.

As the officer puts it, "Australia was a nice cat and now it's a wild fox." But Harold Crouch, an expert on Indonesia who teaches at Australian National University, says that the military is "fundamentally" responsible for the turmoil.

It's hard to know why, he adds. It may be that military leaders are angry at the result, or that they feel that the unrest will actually prevent a civil war in the territory, or that they secretly want the instability in order to guarantee their role as an institution that can provide peace. They may be unable to control their own forces in East Timor.

Or finally, they may want to teach a lesson to other regions considering moves toward independence. For decades, the paramount of this diverse nation has been how to keep it together.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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