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But Who Are These Western Crusaders to Be Lecturing Asians?

By Philip Bowring - International Herald Tribune

LONDON - In helping to make an international issue out of the East Timor tragedy, Western media and human rights and church groups have strengthened their self-image as a global moral police force. But no amount of brutality by the Indonesian military should disguise the discomforting aspects of the current crusade.

Much is done in the name of the ''international community'' and ''international standards,'' vague concepts often invoked by the West regardless of whether they reflect the majority view of the United Nations, as over Palestine, or of allies such as Turkey, in the Kurdish case.

On East Timor, the standard bearers of ''internationalism'' include former colonial states whose assumptions of a dutyto intervene are viewed with skepticism in Asia, even in countries which have agreed in principle to join a UN force.

The Western urge to intervene might at least seem selfless if it were accompanied by acceptance of real losses. But, having in Kosovo shown scant willingness to risk many lives even for a cause on NATO and EU doorsteps, they seem unlikely to face down Indonesian militias should that be necessary to win in Timor.

Indeed, the latest ''international community'' exercise may well make matters worse, promoting separatism by falsely promising protection while inciting violence by the militias. Who pushed B.J. Habibie into a rash promise that he could not keep? Who made Timorese think that outside supervision equaled protection? What precipitated in East Timor the scorched earth policies so familiar from ex-Yugoslavia?

The West has been stirred into semi-action not by national interest but by a frenzy of moralizing unrelated to any prior interest in an archipelago of 200 million people.

In Britain, expansion of sanctimonious editorializing on international issues has mirrored the decline of foreign news coverage. Like tears on television, writing now aims not so much to inform as to tug at heartstrings.

But in Indonesia it does not go unnoticed that the Western groups and nongovernmental organizations active in bringing East Timor to the forefront also lecture about ''Javanese imperialism'' and call for ''freedom'' for the Acehnese, Irianese, Ambonese etc. Do not be surprised if Indonesians see plots behind such support for a breakup of the nation.

Asian neighbors are reluctant to intervene in Timor because they know that any breakaways from Indonesia risk raising a multitude of other separatist and irredentist issues. Take Sabah. Should it be independent, remain part of Malaysia, be acquired by the Philippines (which still formally claims it) or be incorporated into a revived state of Sulu, encompassing parts of the Philippines and Indonesian Borneo? Or become part of a re-expanded Brunei?

The risks of disintegration are not as great in Asia as in Africa. But they do exist, and the dangers to the interests of the region as a whole are greater than the possible benefits of independence for a few oil- and gas-rich groups, such as the Acehnese and Irianese. As Abraham Lincoln recognized, the right to self-determination must coexist with other principles, in this case the greatest good of the greatest number.

That is not to imply that, as some nationalists aver, the West is using ''human rights'' now, as it used other methods in the 1950s, to keep access to resource-rich islands. But it does make it essential that self-proclaimed saviors of Timor understand the unsavory post-1945 history of Western attempts to divide Indonesia.

As for Rome, which not so long ago was a bulwark of Portugal's dismal role in East Timor, it needs to recognize that Indonesia has been trying harder than most Catholic countries to avoid confessional politics. It is bad news for Christianity in Asia and secularism everywhere if East Timor is deemed to deserve independence because it is predominantly Catholic and Indonesia is mainly Muslim.

The brutality of the Indonesian military (not only in East Timor) should not blind us to the benefits of large, multiethnic, multireligious states. Does the West really want to promote the Balkanization of Southeast Asia?