Subject: AWSJ: Editorial: More Trouble In East Timor

Asian Wall Street Journal August 14, 2000

AWSJ: Editorial: More Trouble In East Timor

(Editor's Note: This editorial appeared in Tuesday's Asian Wall Street Journal.)

Can Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid control his army? That's a question nagging about 2,500 United Nations peacekeepers in East Timor as they brace for some serious trouble from heavily armed militia groups coinciding with Indonesia's National Day on Wednesday and the anniversary of last year's August 30 referendum resulting in East Timor's independence.

In the last three weeks, a series of well-coordinated assaults have already resulted in the deaths of two peacekeepers; a 26-year-old Nepali named Devi Ram Jaishi was killed Thursday. But U.N. commanders on the ground fear the worst is yet to come. Not the least because the militias are better trained and better armed than a year ago when they went on a bloody rampage, refusing to accept the results of the U.N. referendum in which the people of East Timor overwhelming voted for independence from Indonesia.

Aside from the question of whether the U.N. should ever have involved itself in a secessionist fight or has any capability to convert East Timor into a free standing state, there is plenty of blame to attach to Jakarta. The harshness of the Suharto regime obviously fanned the secessionist fires in East Timor. The present democratic Indonesian government doesn't seem to have much control over the nationalists in the region who refuse to accept U.N. jurisdiction. Jakarta insists that the military isn't assisting the militias, and claims that it doesn't have the resources to monitor, let alone stop the violence from spinning out of control. It fears that an attempt of its own to crack down on the militias could spark a wider uprising.

U.N. commanders, unsurprisingly, disagree. They argue that the Indonesian army continues to arm the militias and allows them to operate with impunity in and around refugees camps set up in West Timor. The camps were established last September to accommodate the 250,000 East Timorese who fled across the border to escape violence in the first place. And they say Mr. Wahid and his lieutenants are refusing to arrest militia leaders and decommissioned soldiers involved in the groups, a move that they apparently think could also head off a crisis.

Jakarta and the peacekeepers do agree that the camps themselves are training and recruitment grounds for the militia groups and therefore should be closed and the refugees repatriated. But Jakarta, which must come forward with plan, hasn't yet come up with one.

Mr. Wahid can claim some modest successes in reforming the military and consolidating his control over it. General Wiranto, former army chief and some 72 of his officers were retired. Among the officers was General Djaja Suparaman, head of Kostrand, the military's most powerful and feared division of elite troops.

Mr. Wahid then embarked on a creditable plan to withdraw the military from its longtime police function and concentrate its efforts solely on national defense. That plan is extremely important for strengthening civilian rule in the country's farflung provinces. It trebles the size of the police force to 600,000 from 200,000 and provides a new source of employment for many of the military's lower ranks.

In what appear to be the first real attempts at seeing how this division of the military and civilian police works, Mr. Wahid last week sent a police brigade to the war-torn Malukus island region, where the unit successfully escorted 2,000 Christian refugees back to their districts in the capital Ambon. Meanwhile, a crack army unit was flown in to enforce a state of civil emergency and replace troops who have been accused of siding in the conflict with Muslim militant groups.

Given his difficulties at the recent session of the People's Consultative Assembly, it's obvious Mr. Wahid has neither made many friends nor vanquished his opponents since taking office 10 months ago. The presence of army-supported militias in East and West Timor mean there's still plenty of resistance within the military to Mr. Wahid's reforms, and to the idea that an international group can simply step in and hive off what the militias regard as chunk of Indonesian territory.

Yet, for all that, the president has shown that he is capable of making progress. The country's elites seem to understand that civilian control over the military is important to Indonesia's international standing and stability. The continuing problems in East Timor don't make this transition any easier, and it will become less easier if fighting between the militias and U.N. forces escalates. But at least it appears that Mr. Wahid still has the right objectives in mind.


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