Sat, 11 Sep 1999

East Timor and Kosovo are different

By Gwynne Dyer

LONDON (JP): Do you remember what all the cynics said during the Kosovo war last spring? They said that North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) attack on Serbia was not genuinely motivated by humanitarian concern about the slaughter of the Kosovars. They said it was really about oil, or strategy, or alliance solidarity, or any old thing that would allow them to deny that there was an element of altruism in American and Western foreign policy.

And their proof? Well, they said, if the "international community" (i.e. the West and its friends) were actually serious about human rights, it would also intervene militarily to defend oppressed peoples in places like Kurdistan and East Timor. And just like magic, only three months later, here is the international community's chance to prove it was really sincere. East Timor is in agony. Do something about it.

The former Portuguese colony has been systematically ravaged and terrorized by Indonesian army units and the local "militias" they openly arm and control since its people voted four-to-one for independence from Indonesia on Aug. 30. This continues a tradition of military savagery against the local population that dates back to Jakarta's invasion and annexation of the territory soon after it gained independence in 1975, but now the United Nations is involved in the situation up to its ears.

Since Indonesia's interim President B.J. Habibie agreed to a referendum in East Timor last January as part of the process of democratization and decentralization in the sprawling, ethnically diverse archipelago, the United Nations (UN) has been in East Timor registering the voters, supervising the actual vote -- and now, sheltering terrified Timorese from the fury of the Indonesian army and its anti-independence militias.

This post-referendum campaign of violence was entirely predictable, but the official apparatus of the UN seems to have gone into shock. For the past week, Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been hovering on the edge of pulling the UN observers out and abandoning the Timorese entirely to their fate. And the sound of prospective saviors making themselves scarce has been loud in the land.

"To say the least, it would be hard to persuade our publics that our soldiers should go into that kind of conflict," said Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer on Wednesday. "That is a very difficult kind of conflict. That is, in a word, a war."

Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas was quick to reinforce that notion, warning that any peacekeeping force not requested by Jakarta would have to "shoot its way into East Timor. Don't pressure us, don't give us ultimatums...because it doesn't help and it's not realistic."

But hang on a minute. Kosovo was a war. NATO's forces had to shoot their way into Kosovo, if only from the air. Hundreds of people have been murdered in East Timor each day since the referendum. So why is sauce for the goose not sauce for the gander? Why is everybody backing away from sending military help to the poor East Timorese?

One reason is that Indonesia has 200 million people and is a long way from all the big military powers, whereas Serbia has only 10 million people and was right next door to NATO's forces in Europe. Size matters, and most people intuitively understand that using force for humanitarian ends, even if you accept the idea in principle, is only defensible if it has a reasonable chance of success. Nobody advocates attacking China to free Tibet.

Another reason is that Indonesia is not Serbia. The latter is a thinly disguised dictatorship whose leader, Slobodan Milosevic, has been fomenting wars of ethnic cleansing against all Serbia's neighbors since 1992 --- and it still took over a year of daily slaughter in Kosovo before anybody did anything about it.

Indonesia, by contrast, is a shaky democracy newly emerged from dictatorship, still led by the man who surprised everyone by offering the East Timorese a referendum. But the democrats are clearly having trouble in enforcing their authority over an army that thrives on civil unrest, and often incites it, in order to increase its leverage over the civilian government.

Since the overthrow of Soeharto last year, at least until the army unleashed the militias recently, Indonesia has behaved better in East Timor than at any time since it invaded 24 years ago. Even Indonesian political leaders who opposed East Timor's independence, like Megawati Soekarnoputri, the likely next president, have agreed to respect the outcome of the referendum. The problem here is not an evil state; it is an army that is out of control.

It is not yet clear whether all of the army is out of control, or just elements of the high command plus the actual commanders on the ground in East Timor. In either case, and despite the many prevarications and outright lies being issued by a defensive government in Jakarta, the rest of the world owes Jakarta the courtesy of a little more time to get its own house in order.

"The military as an institution, the police as an institution, are not in support of the people burning and killing and looting," said Ali Alatas on Thursday. "These are criminal activities and we are going to put a stop to them." Even if you don't really believe him, at this point you still have to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Besides, there are no volunteers for a peacekeeping force that has to shoot its way into East Timor. One way or another, you have to get Jakarta's permission first.