Subject: The Nation: Not in the interest of the region
Date: Fri, 02 Apr 1999 08:00:06 -0500
From: The AustralAsian <ausasia@ozemail.com.au>

The Nation, Bangkok, March 31, 1999

Not in the interest of the region

The Australian government and Asean should listen to the warnings coming from the East Timorese leadership, look beyond its parochialism and lend the Timorese a helping hand, writes Dr Andrew McNaughtan.

WHILE there is some progress towards a solution for East Timor, there are also extremely worrying signs that the whole process could be derailed.

Unless prompt and effective action is taken by concerned governments and the United Nations, East Timor could be allowed to descend into further conflict and be a divided territory -- a 'Cyprus' or 'Northern Ireland' in the Asia-Pacific region. This would not be in the national interests of Indonesia, Asean, Australia or the potential future nation of East Timor.

Recent events on the ground give cause for concern. While the UN delegation charged with overseeing the imminent vote on Timor's future makes its preparations, the pro-integration militias created with the backing of the Indonesian Armed Forces, Abri, are continuing their campaign of terror and destabilisation.

In spite of suggestions from many quarters, including Australia, that they should be disarmed, this hasn't happened. In fact, they have recently increased their activities, mainly in the areas they control -- the western border region of East Timor. Here there has been an increase in killings and intimidation by these groups with an associated upsurge in the number of displaced villagers fleeing their violence.

The militias have cut the northern and southern access roads into East Timor and have apparently now released a document that suggests they will wage all-out war against the leaders of the pro-independence majority. Numerous reports from different areas in the country confirm that the militia attacks on villagers suspected of being pro-independence are done with direct assistance and participation of the Indonesian army.

It is clear that the Indonesian Armed Forces are directly involved in creating and backing these groups. The process of forming and training them, providing arms and payment has taken place publicly under the umbrella of the Indonesian military. Without Abri's direct support it is not likely that the militias would be a real threat to East Timor's stability.

It is evident that support and funding for this process is coming from an influential hardline section of Abri -- the Kopassus Intelligence arm or SGI. This is the same group that played a pivotal role for many years in the ongoing dirty war in East Timor. They were the masters of the pre-existing paramilitary groups who have been the source of many of the worst human rights abuses over recent years. Abri formerly claimed that the activities of these groups, designed to terrorise supporters of independence, was not their responsibility. This claim became harder to sustain when the Abri documents released last October showed the direct link between Abri and the paramilitary groups. Resistance leader Xanana Gusmao, now under house arrest, has explicitly outlined the connection between these militias groups and the Indonesian military SGI.

The current UN plan does not envisage any steps to disarm these groups or ask their Indonesian mentors to leave before the projected vote on Timor's future --currently scheduled for July. Joao Tavares, leader of the militia group 'Halilintar' has already indicated that he will not abide by the result of a vote if, as seems likely, his side loses. It is almost inevitable that the militias will attempt to coerce the population in the areas under their control (about a quarter of the area of East Timor) to vote for integration. This is a scenario for bloodshed and an unrepresentative vote.

Another risk is that (assuming the population votes against integration with Indonesia) the militia leaders, with the support of the Indonesian military, might resist the transition and try to partition the western area of East Timor off. This option is being talked about in Timor by the Indonesian-appointed Governor -- Abilio Soares. If this were allowed to occur the likelihood is that the partitioned area would also contain a majority who wish to be independent and thus continuing conflict would be almost inevitable.

The Timorese political and religious leadership recognise these dangerous prospects and have been clear in their warnings. Xanana Gusmao recently stated ''the situation in East Timor has deteriorated significantly, with the escalation of violence organised by the military secret intelligence (SGI) as they orchestrate the intimidation campaign carried out by groups they have set up and armed .'' He calls for ''the immediate disarming and disbanding of these civilian militias'' and an immediate UN policing presence.

East Timor's Nobel Peace Laureate Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo commented recently: ''I do not trust the Indonesian Armed Forces. Things cannot advance unless there is an international presence in the territory.''

It seems President Habibie is making a sincere attempt to resolve the East Timor issue. It also seems plausible that Armed Forces Commander Wiranto would acquiesce to East Timor's transition.

The force driving the destabilisation in Timor appears to be a hardline and influential faction within the military elite who are reluctant to see East Timor leave Indonesia -- for both personal and broader strategic reasons. They are well connected and well funded. Unless they are exposed and confronted effectively they may well sabotage East Timor's future. The likely outcome, if they are allowed to be successful, is to entrench an even more chronic problem on our northern border. This is not in the interests of any of the legitimate parties. Most of all the Timorese people deserve a chance to settle their future freely and peacefully.

In spite of these ominous signs the Australian government seems to be adopting a passive approach -- presumably in the hope that things will sort themselves out. This is not likely to happen. Asean governments, on the other hand have chosen to remain silent, leaving the question of East Timor's independence squarely on the shoulders of the West. There is an urgent need to change these attitudes.

Without committed engagement and active interest in the outcome, it is likely that those who want to derail Timor's peaceful transition will be allowed to succeed. The Australian government should listen to the warnings coming from the East Timorese leadership and be prepared to play a proactive role in bringing about a just and stable outcome. Asean, too, must look beyond its parochialism and lend the Timorese a helping hand.


Dr Andrew McNaughtan, convenor of the Australia East Timor Association (Aeta), and a spokesperson for the East Timor International Support Centre (Etisc), is a medical doctor who has taken an active interest in the issue since the early 90s and visited East Timor on six occasions, including this year.

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