Wed, 30 Oct 1996

East Timor issue

The colonial leaders of Portugal during the 1970s created the East Timor problem. But the new leaders in Lisbon can solve this issue, if there is a will. In 1962, India -- the so-called "largest democracy" -- did not care about world opinion, the United Nations or human rights when it invaded the Portuguese colony of Goa and forcibly annexed it. Is Portugal doing anything about it?

Indonesia could have done exactly as Nehru did in Goa, but President Soeharto showed great patience, hoping that Portugal would peacefully transfer the territory of East Timor to Indonesia. Instead, Portugal played a cunning game of instigating the local East Timorese to rise and fight in the Portuguese battle with Indonesia, thus creating the tragedy of East Timor. Indonesia was in a strange fix over what to do, because this was the time when Saigon had fallen to the communists, and there was widespread concern that communists would infiltrate the most vulnerable area of Indonesia, which was East Timor, causing serious problems for the country.

Shortly before Indonesia took military action in East Timor, president Ford, who had the uncomfortable job of leading America in a recovery process following the tragedy of the Vietnam War, met with President Soeharto in Jakarta. It is reasonable to assume that Soeharto must have told the American president about the danger his country of over 17,000 islands faced from possible communist infiltration of East Timor, and that it could be necessary for Indonesia to take military action.

It is also reasonable to speculate that president Ford might have given support to any action that Indonesia chose to take to stop the spread of communism in East Timor. In my opinion, Indonesia's military action in East Timor was correct and timely. Everyone regrets the loss of life on both sides, but the blame for this tragedy must be solely placed on the Portuguese, who instigated the East Timorese before leaving the colony abruptly.

If the current Portuguese leaders in Lisbon have guts and vision, they should do now what they should have done much earlier to end this tragic episode, simply by officially returning the colonial administration of East Timor to its rightful owner, Indonesia. Timor was not Portuguese or Dutch, but Indonesian land. It does not matter if the colonial administration of East Timor was in the hands of Portuguese and West Timor was administered by the colonial Dutch. It is an established fact that Christians and Chinese, like any other hard-working and capable Indonesians, have an equal opportunity to become prosperous and reach higher positions in the Indonesian administration.

East Timorese are smart people and they will have similar opportunities in Indonesia if the Portuguese will leave them alone. The question is whether the Portuguese leaders in Lisbon are bold enough to make the courageous decision, as suggested above, to bring a final end to their colonial aspiration of hanging on to East Timor.