In Indonesia, it was the best and worst of days

Foreign troops met no opposition in East Timor yesterday. Refugee aidefforts begin.

It was a good day for East Timor, a decent day for the international community, and a lousy day for Indonesia.

When an Australian-led force reached the East Timorese capital of Dili yesterday, the territory's residents took a major step closer to independence. And the 20 or so nations contributing to the force could take some satisfaction from their quick response to crisis.

But many Indonesians watched the arrival of foreign troops with muted distaste. As one former Cabinet minister puts it, "The way the multinational force was established is ... hurting people's pride, people's sense of nationalism."

The troops' first task is restoring a sense of security. Over the past two weeks militias supported by the Indonesian military have killed an unknown number of East Timorese, driven hundreds of thousands from their homes, and destroyed much of the territory's infrastructure.

The vanguard of the force of some 7,500 troops met no resistance during their first day in Dili, although militia members have vowed to attack the troops. The force's Australian commander, Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove, credited the Indonesian military for "first class" cooperation.

Equally severe is the threat to livelihood caused by the turmoil. The displaced Timorese will almost certainly be unable to plant their crops when the rainy season comes in December, meaning that what is soon to be the world's newest country will need help.

"The international community will have to feed a lot of people there until the next crop" more than a year from now, says Piet Vochten, who directs the Rome-based World Food Program (WFP) in Kupang, the capital of West Timor. This province, which shares one of Indonesia's islands with East Timor, is hosting nearly 200,000 refugees, according to government figures.

A large number of people have also fled their homes but remain within East Timor. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said yesterday that some 300,000 people - more than a third of East Timor's population of 850,000 - may be displaced. The Red Cross estimates that as many as 600,000 have left their homes.

The WFP and other organizations are making initial preparations for an emergency operation to meet the need for rice and other essential commodities.

Some of the refugees, interviewed here in recent days, say they are eager to return home, but it is unclear when that can begin to happen. For one thing, the destruction in East Timor is severe. "They won't have anything" once they reach their villages, says one international relief worker helping the refugees in West Timor. "Everything has been destroyed."

The militias began their rampage after the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly in favor of breaking away from Indonesia on Aug. 30. Agusta, an East Timorese refugee in Kupang, shepherded to safety her own three children and three others who were without their parents when militias forced them to "leave or die." She still has no idea what has happened to her husband.

She relates the details of her flight with little evident emotion, but the tears come when she is asked about the referendum: "An election is supposed to be about freedom - why are we being treated this way?"

Indonesian and foreign analysts say that anger and frustration were behind the violence, since this country's military has fought a guerrilla war in East Timor for a quarter century. "It is very hard for us to leave," notes one senior military officer, speaking on condition of anonymity from his office in Jakarta, the capital.

But there may be more to the backlash than emotion. The militias drove people from their homes in a concerted manner, according to numerous accounts from refugees, and they continue to intimidate and harass them at camps in West Timor. Relief workers and local clergy in Kupang say the militias are seeking out, and in some cases killing, East Timorese who support independence.

The international relief worker, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, wonders whether the militias will let the refugees return. Keeping them in West Timor could lay a foundation for claiming that parts of East Timor should be carved off and made part of Indonesia.

"We are prepared to accommodate them temporarily [for] at least three month's time," says Gembong Priyono, a senior Indonesian government official working on the crisis in West Timor. But he adds that once security has been restored in East Timor, "I'm sure that they will go back."

East Timorese officials in Kupang seemed unfazed by the arrival of what is known as the International Force in East Timor (Interfet), even though the provincial bureaucracy they serve is soon to be replaced by a new government.

"We hope they can do something," says Arnold Mally, who at least nominally remains head of East Timor's Bureau for General Affairs. Asked if Interfet is the right thing for East Timor, he says, "The UN has already decided, so they know best about that."

Analysts in Jakarta are not so dismissive about the long-term effects of a foreign force guiding one of Indonesia's provinces toward independence. Indonesia is a diverse and sometimes fractious grouping of cultures and ethnic groups, and East Timor unquestionably sets a precedent.

The former Cabinet minister says the international media is vastly more concerned about events in East Timor than most Indonesians, who have economic problems and the upcoming selection of a new president on their minds. But he does worry that the sense of "humiliation" bred by the international criticism of Indonesia's handling of East Timor and the introduction of foreign troops will promote "narrow nationalism" that will serve the incumbent president, B.J. Habibie.

"I am afraid that because of East Timor many opposition people will rally around [Mr.] Habibie, because of the attitude 'my country, right or wrong.' "

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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