Subject: Washington Post Editorial: Pressing Indonesia

Washington Post Thursday, September 14, 2000


Pressing Indonesia

AS THE democratic successor to the former Indonesian dictator, Suharto, President Abdurrahman Wahid enjoys a deep reservoir of international goodwill. A successful transition to democracy in Indonesia, the world's fourth-largest country, is not only intrinsically desirable but also critical to the stability of Southeast Asia. Yet President Wahid's failure to gain control over violent army-backed militias on the troubled island of Timor is beginning to tax even his strongest supporters in the international community.

The militias' gruesome Sept. 6 murder of three United Nations aid workers--including a U.S. citizen--has brought the matter to a head. It happened not in East Timor, which won its long struggle for independence from Indonesia last year despite a rampage by the militias that killed hundreds of people, but in West Timor, where tens of thousands of refugees from last year's carnage are still encamped. Many of these people fled to West Timor because they supported the pro-Jakarta militias and feared life in an independent East Timor; many, however, now want to go home but are being effectively held hostage by the militias. Eurico Guterres, a leader of the militias thought to be deeply implicated in last year's massacres, operates freely in West Timor.

Mr. Wahid staved off a move to set up a United Nations war-crimes tribunal on East Timor by promising that Indonesia itself would prosecute those responsible for past violence. A list of relatively high-ranking military suspects has indeed been drawn up; but Mr. Guterres is conspicuously not on it, and at least one high-ranking officer simply didn't show up for his scheduled appointment with government lawyers last week. Human rights organizations say that these law enforcement failures create a climate of impunity that is at least partly responsible for the new wave of militia murders in West Timor. Mr. Wahid's blithe assurance to reporters at the U.N. Millennium Summit that "everything is under control" only made him seem more out of touch.

Richard Holbrooke, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has suggested that the Security Council may need to take another look at establishing a tribunal. To this form of pressure on Mr. Wahid has been added an unusually direct warning from the World Bank that future financial support for Indonesia may hinge on resolution of the tensions in West Timor. Earlier this year the U.S. military had made some exceptions to its suspension of contact with the Indonesians, and the Pentagon is eager to restore full military-to-military relations. Now that, too, is on hold; Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen will visit Jakarta on Sunday to deliver a strong message on Timor. Given the fragility of Mr. Wahid's government, U.S. pressure intended to bring the military to heel should be calibrated. But pressure there must be.

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