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 separate. 
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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