09 September 1999

Terror in Timor and the interventionist urge

9 September 1999
The Times of India

Terror in Timor and the
Interventionist Urge

By Siddharth Varadarajan

AS EAST TIMOR SLIPS further into a chaos scripted by the Indonesian army, the international community must once again confront the troubling question of whether armed intervention is a valid response to the violation of human rights. After Iraq, Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, Bosnia and Yugoslavia, Indonesia is the seventh sovereign country in recent years to be told to allow foreign "peace enforcement" troops onto its soil -- of overflights over its airspace. If Jakarta does not yield, there is talk of the forcible insertion of troops from Australia and a few other states, acting with or without the explicit authorisation of the UN Security Council.

Of course, what is happening in East timor is not a text-book case of an "internal affair" protected by the UN Charter. Indonesia may consider East Timor an "integral" part of its territory but this has never been accepted by the UN. The statelet was annexed to the
archipelagic republic less than a year after it was invaded by the Indonesian armed forces on December 7, 1975. The UN General Assembly and Security Council deplored Indonesia's actions and called upon Jakarta to withdraw. Last week's referendum -- in which 78.5 per cent of East Timor voted for independence -- came at the end of negotiations involving the UN, Indonesia and Portugal, the former colonial power in East Timor. By willingly participating in the process and declaring that it would abide by the referendum result, the Indonesian government has, in effect, agreed that it has no sovereign claims on the territory.

Washington's Strategy

Indonesia invaded East Timor at the end of a civil war which saw the relatively radical East Timorese political party, FRETILIN, emerge victorious. One day before moving in, President Suharto had had extensive discussions with US President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. What they talked about is still a secret but it is unthinkable that Suharto would have dared to act without a green signal from the US.

Indonesia occupied a central role in Washington's strategy for dominance in Southeast Asia and the Pacific region during the Cold War. In 1965, the US engineered a coup against the Sukarno government and applauded as more than 800,000 Indonesians -- communists, suspected communists and ethnic Chinese -- were hunted and murdered by the army and special militia. Not only did the US, Australia and others support the Indonesian invasion of East Timor but they also continued to sell arms to the Suharto regime knowing full well that their weapons would be used to massacre the population there. Indonesia still was a bulwark in a region buffeted by radicalism and political instability. The US did not want East Timor to become another Cuba or Vietnam. Apart from the fear of the "domino effect", the deep channels north of the island were vital for the safe and surrepticious transit of US nuclear submarines from Guam in the Pacific to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. If East Timor were to fall into "hostile" hands, the trip would become longer by up to a week. Civilisation would be endangered. In order to save the world for Freedom and Democracy, the East Timorese had to be made unfree.

Original Sin

The end of the Cold War has led Washington to reassess its approach to the region. The problem for the US, Australia and others in how to set up East Timor as an independent country militarily dependent on the West without endangering their economic and strategic assets in the rest of Indonesia. Any decision to intervene militarily will be taken on the basis of these considerations alone, not humanitarisation.

Indonesia has a responsibility to maintain law and order until it formally hands over power to the UN or a transitional East Timor administration. If the US, which has propped up the Indonesian army all these years really wants to force Jakarta to curb the militias, it should suspend its links with Indonesian army and announce an end to all arms exports to that country. This, however, it is unprepared to do as it will lose a lucrative market and push Indonesia and China closer together.

And yet, the alternative -- intervention -- will be even more disastrous for the West. After NATO's agreesive in Yugoslavia, the Chinese are bound sharply to react to anything which smacks of the unilateral use of force by the West in their own "backyard". If anything, the world should have acted decisively when Indonesia invaded East Timor 24 years ago. Using force now will not make up for past wrongs. It will only compound the original sin.

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