Hongkong: The East
Timor tragedy is not as simple as it looks. The west, and especially Portugal,
bear much responsibility for fanning separatism, and the Church is
paying scant heed to the needs to keep religion and the state in Indonesia
The news from East Timor is indeed grim. But so it is too from
Dagestan and some other places where small wars and civil
strife are raging. There is a response to all this that is
worse than doing nothing: assuming the UN or some
international group can do anything which would not have even
more dire consequences. Let us not get carried away with self-
righteous anger but be brutal in examining some unpalatable
For a start, this is not Kosovo or Bangladesh. Whatever the
moral issues at stake, those "wars of liberation" were
conducted because it was in the interests of neighbours, in
one case NATO countries in the other India to assist. In the
Timor case, the East Timor independence cause is, though they
dare not say so loudly, anathema to most of the neighbours.
Even Australia, where sympathy for East Timor is stronger than
anywhere, knows the dangers of petty nationalisms in a region
of relatively new states, which partly explains why it
reconised Indonesian annexation in the first place.
While condemnation of Indonesia has been flying thick and fast
from western countries, hardly a peep is being heard from
ASEAN neighbours, or Melanesian Papua New Guinea (which has
more than enough separatist problems of its own). Malaysia and
Thailand have offered peacekeeping troops -- but only if
Jakarta wants them.
At one level ASEAN countries are embarrassed. At another they
fear that Timor could lead to separatist and irredentist
movements springing up all around the region. Already, for
example, Muslims from the Muslim majority areas of western
Mindanao and Sulu southern Philippines have given it as an
example of why they too deserve the right to choose
independence or autonomy. For the first time since the 1960s
the spectre of fragmentation is beginning to haunt the region.
Could the states of southeast Asia, which for two decades had
been seen to be both strengthening nationhood and achieving
notable cooperation among themselves, again be in danger of
the once feared Balkanisation?
This is not an idle issue and it behoves supporters of East
Timor independence to explain why 600,000 people on a half
small island deserve an option unavailable to other small
groups and which may well be contrary to the stability
interests of 400 million others in the region.
East Timor is different of course because of colonial history.
But should successor states be entirely bound by the colonial
past? Why not independence for West Timor too? Is it because
it is less Timorese? Maybe it is more so, lacking East Timor's
ubiquitous Catholic Church and lacking a political leadership
which often seems more at home in Portugese than local
Without Portugal and the Church, it seems likely that Timor
would be no more an international issue now than is Goa, the
Portugese territory forcibly annexed by India in 1961. Goa has
twice the population of East Timor. The hypocrisy of the
Portugese, and to a lesser extent the church, are stunning.
Having done nothing to develop it during 400 years of rule,
nothing to educate its people. It killed plenty of Timorese
who rebelled, but then walked away from the territory in 1974.
Now it still insists on a major say in its future.
The UN meanwhile has seemingly ended up as handmaiden of the
former western colonial powers. The irony here is that it was
largely Indonesia's pro-western stance which (contrary to Goa)
denied it UN recognition of its annexation. The US and
Australia has recognised, so it was in its interest of Soviet-
leaning states, egged on by Portugal, to keep East Timor issue
alive as an irritant.
As for the church, it moved with characteristic Vatican skill
from being closely associated with the Portugese colonial
regime to be a tacit supportive of separatism from a
predominantly Muslim Indonesia. It actively opposed migration
from Indonesia, including West Timor, even though inter-
island migration has long been part of the Indonesian nation-
building process. This may have been good politics but may not
deserve too many morality marks.
Catholic connections and sympathies of western Christendom
have in turn helped the separatist cause. That may be natural
but is unlikely to help other countries in the region keep
politics and religion apart. The church's role in Timor has
not made life any easier for the millions of Indonesian
Christians, nor indeed for secularists in Indonesia who fear
the divisive national impact of confessional politics. Many
western commentators express concern about "Muslim extremism"
in Indonesia but say nothing about the church's confessional
politics in Timor.
None of this is to deny that the majority want independence,
that the Indonesian military has always been brutal towards
Timor and is particularly so now. Nor does it ignore president
Habibie's culpability for having promised Timorese a choice
which he was not in a position to deliver.
It must now be hoped that the Indonesian military as well as
its post Habibie leaders will accept that Timor is a special
case, its separation will not lead to national dissolution and
that the end of the bloodshed will benefit Indonesia's
economy, political climate and international standing.
But the brutal bottom line is that the UN equally can do very
little to deliver on its promises. China and Russia, both
terrified of separatism, will veto any UN military involvement
which is not approved by Jakarta. The Asian neighbours will
sit on the sidelines. That will leave the western ex-
colonialists gnashing their teeth and bewailing barbarities.
But their only lever will be IMF and World Bank
money. Judging by Chechnya, that is a blunt instrument indeed.
And does the capitalist world generally want to risk billions
of existing loans, Indonesia's adherence to the international
system, and perhaps its revived democracy for the sake of this
tragic accident of history? It is not a nice question. But it
is a necessary one.
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