by Philip Bowring
Sydney: The April 27 meeting in Bali between President Habibie
and Prime Minister John Howard reflects the depth of
Australian concern about the violence in East Timor and the
threat to the promised free vote on autonomy.
But the meeting also underlines how little power either leader
has to control events. Both are responding to pressures to be
seen to be "doing something". In Howard's case, he must cope
with the anti-Indonesian sentiment which dominates the media,
and the exaggerated assumptions of many Australians about what
their nation can do to help the Timorese.
For his part, Habibie must be seen to be taking seriously
international criticism of the behaviour of Indonesian
military in Timor. Even Japan has now joined that chorus. He
also needs to prevent the Timor issue casting a shadow over
the June 7 elections, vital to establishing legitimacy and
stability to government in Jakarta.
In Australia, there is a divide. Foreign policy has long
viewed accomodation with a nation of 150 million as more
important than the fate of half a small island left in the
lurch by Portugal in 1975. On the other hand there is deep
distrust of the Indonesian military, an emotional attachment
to "minority rights" issues of all kinds, links to Timor's
Christian community, and a rose tinted view of the Timorese
independence movement which tends to forget the violent, and
quasi-European radical background of Fretilin.
But what can Howard actually do? He can end aid and military
cooperation with Jakarta. But that would merely be an
irritation. In theory he could push for the US and EU to make
IMF help conditional on good behaviour in Timor. But the west
has other concerns. It would anyway would be reluctant to
further jeopardise the stability of a major debtor, or make
overt threats which could undermine the elections.
Many Australians see a comparison between Timor and Kosovo,
but for all its failings Jakarta cannot be accused of ethnic
cleansing. Even if there were a parallel, there is no way
ASEAN neighbours, or Papua New Guinea, would assist the
dismemberment of Indonesia. Indeed many view western concern
about Timor as hypocrisy, an issue kept alive for its own
reasons by Portugal, a failed coloniser who still presides
over one of Asia's most lawless territories, Macau.
The issue will continue to embarrass Indonesia at the UN, but
the UN cannot impose a solution. This is not Cambodia, where
the powers were directly involved and needed the UN as part of
the solution. The UN, and Australia, can assist in the the
polls but can only be peacekeepers if, as seems unlikely,
Jakarta agreed. Even then, it it hard to see Australian troops
settling a civil war.
As for Habibie, his control of the army is limited. It has
lost too many lives in Timor to readily accept his offer to
let it go, if the majority desires. Timor could also become an
issue in the political horse-trading between the June 7
election and the November choice of a president. Howard, for
one, has to recognise that democracy could make a Timor
solution even more difficult, constitutionally and
emotionally. Many Indonesians feel that having spent so much
money and effort on integration, it should hang on regardless.
Others would be content to let it fall back into the chaos
Portugal left behind.
Indonesians are also more concerned than Australians recognise
that western Christian identification with Timorese separatism
is no help to religious harmony elsehwere in Indonesia. They
note too that thousands of non-Timorese have left for fear of
their own future safety in a land ruled by Fretilin and Xanana
Gusmao. Independence advocates now find propaganda and
diplomacy their most effective weapons. But it was not always
so. Gusmao has promised resort to arms if needed, thereby
increasing the military's tendency to arm the pro-independence
Indeed, a "kill or be killed" mentality may be forming. A
political solution looks very difficult even if Fretilin were
prepared to acknowledge that the majority might prefer to
forego independence rather than endure the endless bloodshed
which seems likely from today's polarization.
The best that Habibie and Howard can do is use this meeting to
limit the ability of their domestic politics to make a bad
situation worse, and remind them that democratic politics in
plural societies involves compromises on all sides.
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