Sat, 11 Sep 1999

Tension over East Timor

Even in the most untroubled of times, relations between Indonesia and Australia have always been prone to ups and downs. Recurrent standoffs and tensions, one might say, are practically the rule that characterize relations between the two big neighbors. This is to be expected, and to a certain extent acceptable, given the different cultural and historical backgrounds of the two nations.

The current conflagration in East Timor, however, has brought this discord to a point where an absence of wisdom or restraint could result in a more total and lasting devastation of whatever accord exists between Indonesia and Australia. There are possible disastrous consequences, not only for the two countries involved, but also for the Southeast Asian and Asia-Pacific regions.

Over the past few days, protesters in several Australian cities have besieged Indonesian diplomatic missions, shouting slogans and burning Indonesian flags to protest Indonesia's handling of East Timor. The protesters say there is a conspiracy between elements of the Indonesian military and police and armed pro-Jakarta militias in East Timor to prevent the East Timorese from realizing the independence for which they overwhelmingly voted for on Aug. 30.

In retaliation, Indonesian youths besieged the Australian Embassy in Jakarta and Australian consulates in other cities to protest what they called undue Australian (and United Nations) interference in this country's internal affairs.

Instead of subsiding, protests on both sides appear to be escalating as the Timor crisis continues to drag on unresolved, despite promises from the authorities in Jakarta to stop the chaos in East Timor. As many as 20,000 to 25,000 people took to the streets on Friday in the Australian city of Melbourne to protest the ongoing rampage and killings in the former Portuguese colony.

In an act that is certain to be more damaging to Indonesia, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) banned its members from processing Indonesian crude oil, providing postal and telephone services to the Indonesian Embassy and consulates throughout Australia and servicing air freight and passenger flights between Indonesia and Australia. Union members are even barred from collecting the garbage from Indonesian missions.

More likely to bring serious and lasting damage to relations between Jakarta and Canberra, however, is Australia's apparent impatience to dispatch a peacekeeping force to East Timor. Such a move is trying to be made with the consent of Jakarta, but, as it is increasingly beginning to look like, if necessary without such consent. Australia's prime minister, John Howard, who earlier stated his country's willingness to lead such a force for duty in East Timor, is pressuring others to support a peacekeeping force under the UN flag. Some 2,000 Australian troops are reported to have already been put on alert for possible shipment from Darwin should the need arise.

Obviously, such audacity is being viewed with great distaste in Jakarta. There is no denying, however, that there is every reason for the world -- Australians included -- to be gravely concerned about what is happening in East Timor. Harrowing tales are being told by survivors of the carnage who fled the territory, many of whom are compelled to live in deplorable conditions in camps in West Timor. After more than a week of unbridled rampaging by militias, the city of Dili is largely in smoking ruins. An untold number of people have been killed and families have been torn apart.

Even as late as yesterday -- two days after martial law was declared, and the day the UN ultimatum for the restoration of peace was supposed to have expired -- militias were reported to have broken into the UN compound in Dili, smashing cars and looting possessions.

Even so, the wisdom of promptly sending UN peacekeepers to East Timor is questionable. A more judgmatic view might be to continue to pressure Jakarta to agree to a peacekeeping force, but not so much as to destabilize the government in Jakarta. Under the circumstances there is considerable wisdom in the words of Philippine presidential spokesman Fernando Barican: "We are very concerned. We are doing what we can, but we will do this in cooperation with Indonesia. It is easier to work with the Indonesian government and the military rather than to work against them."

East Timor deserves the gravest attention. The handling of the East Timor problem, therefore, calls for the greatest wisdom on the part of all those concerned. For Indonesia, the message is clear: End the violence immediately. Give the people of East Timor their right to independence, as they were promised by the President of Indonesia. In the final analysis it would be best for everyone to ensure that East Timor can grow into a peaceful, peace-loving and prosperous country.