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Paris, Wednesday, October 6, 1999

Take Another Look at the East Timor Intervention

By Philip Bowring International Herald Tribune.
HONG KONG - Even assuming an optimistic evolution of the Timor crisis, fault lines have been opened up across East Asia and between it and the West which may take long to close. ASEAN and Australia are the most obvious losers so far.

 And if Indonesia sponsors a guerrilla campaign or defies the United Nations, the potential for disruption of international relationships is immense.

 The Association of South East Asian Nations has failed to keep outside intervention at bay by resolving its own conflicts. Its members failed either to give full backing to Indonesia to reject UN-sponsored armed intervention, or to persuade Indonesia to accept ASEAN-led mediation rather than risk an agenda written in New York.

 ASEAN's paralysis may have been understandable; it was caught among alarm at what was happening in Timor, the political vacuum in Jakarta and distaste for Western-led intervention. But paralysis it was.

 Four ASEAN countries are to contribute to the intervention force, but they are reluctant and tardy participants, there to save Indonesian face and give a brown veneer to an Australian-led force. It is not clear what they will do if confronted by militiasor a recalcitrant Jakarta.

 Whatever Indonesia's failings in Timor, neighbors are unlikely to accede to what they see as the tendency of Kofi Annan and Mary Robinson to treat Indonesia like a failed state.

 Prime Minister John Howard has played into the hands of regional critics of the intervention force's role with talk, now unconvincingly denied, of Australia playing deputy to the U.S. sheriff in the region.

 In a few weeks Australia has undermined 25 years of effort to develop relations with the region in general and Indonesia in particular. Mr. Howard's gaffe may be forgotten, but Australia's switch of direction on Timor and virulent criticism of Jakarta have caused deep hurt in Indonesia even among those most critical of the military. Media invective in both Australia and Indonesia is real cause for concern.

 These strains point to a deeper and perhaps more difficult divide between East and West. Stirred by live reporting of massacres and other human rights abuses, the West has taken the lead in enhancing the role of the United Nations for intervention to stop killings, punish ''war crimes'' and protect oppressed minorities.

 All this is part of an ''improved'' world order in which humanitarian issues take precedence over national sovereignty, and international tribunals enforce justice on behalf of Tutsi, Kosovars, Timorese etc. It is not that Asian governments are not horrified by what has happened in Timor. It is that they tend to view Western priorities as well-meaning but selective, sometimes hypocritical and often driven by a media given to black-and-white, hero-versus-villain views.

 Why Indonesia, and not Russia for its behavior in Chechnya, or Turkey for its treatment of separatist Kurds? Those cases fall into the ''too hard'' basket. The overall national interest of major Western countries requires not being too critical of Moscow or Ankara.

 Likewise, Asian nations put their perceptions of national interest in regional stability and good relations with Jakarta ahead of human rights issues affecting a relatively small community.

 With luck, a new government will accept East Timor's independence, as Jakarta ended confrontation with Malaysia in 1965, and reconcile with Xanana Gusmão. Australian troops will go home, and East Timor will be remembered as the worst side effect of Indonesia's political transition.

 But don't rely on luck. Much of today's mess has been the result of well-meaning but ill-considered actions. It is time to ponder the wreckage that this effort at global ''justice'' has so far produced in Southeast Asia.