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Paris, Monday, August 30, 1999

The Self-Righteous West Is Exacerbating Timor's Crisis

By Philip Bowring International Herald Tribune.
HONG KONG - It is easy to be full of moral indignation if one forgets history and follows headlines. The West, seemingly ignorant of its own past, is in the grip of self-righteous moralizing that is further exacerbating the tragedies still unfolding in former Yugoslavia and formerly Portugese East Timor.

Although they are separated by half a world, the Balkan and Timorese crises are both outcomes of the two main, contradictory impulses of 19th-century Western Europe: imperialist expansion abroad involving the creation of large political entities such as the Dutch East Indies, and encouragement of petty nationalism in Eastern and Southern Europe to hasten the demise of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires.

Western imperial power is no more, but one of its better legacies, the consolidation of tribal entities and feudal states into viable modern ones, is under threat from the West's romantic passion for encouraging the pettiest of nationalisms, not least that of the 800,000 inhabitants of half a small island in an archipelago populated by 200 million.

Editorialists in the United States and Australia - neither country known for having supported East Timor's independence from Portugal and both of which concurred with its annexation by Indonesia - are bizarrely calling for the use of Western force against Indonesia, Asia's third most populous country. What next is to be liberated by the moral imperialists? Dagestan? Chittagong Hill Tracts? Goa?

Petty nationalism, whether in southeastern Europe or Southeast Asia, just might be viable if it were accompanied by efforts to achieve cultural homogeneity (Serbia just for the Serbs, for example). In most cases, the only way to get there is through ''ethnic cleansing.'' This is what Balkan history has been about since the break-up of Yugoslavia.

One need not go back 150 years to accuse the West of hypocrisy. Perhaps the biggest ethnic cleansing operation ever seen was the policy of the World War II victors toward Germany - to cleanse the lands east of the Oder-Neisse line, and Sudetenland, of Germans. One could argue that the immense human suffering of that action helped stabilize Central Europe and enabled Germans and Poles to live in harmony. But that is not the morality being preached to the Serbs.

In East Timor, the majority's demand for independence and the brutality of the Indonesian military are real enough. Chechnya was the same. Ideally, all non-Timorese would either leave or put up with being a minority in the new ministate, where they would make a living as best they could.

But let us deal with the reality of an Indonesia that is keenly aware of the dangers of balkanization. The West seems to think that its exposure of Indonesian brutalities is helpful. But it is equally likely that the idealization of an independence movement that has its own history of violence and ethnic cleansing is prolonging conflict. Nor is it in the wider interests of its neighbors, whether these are defined as newly democratic Indonesia or its immediate components, West Timor and the islands of Flores, Sulawesi and Maluku.

The United Nations is treating East Timor largely on the terms of the Portugese and the colonial boundaries they left so suddenly. The issue is only in the United Nations' lap as a Cold War legacy - a Soviet-backed effort to discredit pro-Western Indonesia. Yet the clock cannot be turned back to Portugal's exit a quarter of a century ago.

If the issue here is Timorese identity, why not a chance for independence for all of Timor? Or is East Timor defined not by geography and its own ethnicity but by its Portugese past and the backgrounds of the independence activists? That is not an issue that the United Nations can address. But if not, where is the morality of self-determination?

Of course the West can and should urge Jakarta to restrain militias and to allow the voters' will to prevail. But the notion that a West which helped create this mess should get directly involved in resolving this problem relic of colonialism is at least as hypocritical as its Balkan displays of righteousness. It is also more likely to end in tears, damaging the West's relations with much of Asia.