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November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek editorial

SEPTEMBER 17, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 37

Timor's Tragedy
After 23 years of misrule, Jakarta reaps the whirlwind

The people of East Timor have voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia. By the tens of thousands they poured out of their homes to cast ballots, defying death threats and intimidation by pro-Jakarta armed militias. The 98% voter turnout was in itself awe-inspiring, just as the brutal bloodletting that followed has been stomach-churning. The referendum could be hailed as a model exercise in democracy - except that East Timor is descending into mayhem and its immediate future looks extremely bleak.

It almost seems as if the troubled territory has come full circle from December 1975, when the Indonesian army arrived after Portugal hastily abandoned its colony. At the time, it looked like the invasion would become a fait accompli, just as India's 1961 annexation of Portuguese-ruled Goa was quickly accepted after some international tut-tutting over the use of force. True, East Timor had its own distinctive culture, the result of four centuries of Lisbon's administration. But so did many other parts of the vast archipelago, which have settled more comfortably into the embrace of modern Indonesia.

East Timor slides into anarchy and Jakarta comes under fire from the international community

Also under the gun

Who they are; what they want

Breaking news from East Timor

Birth of a Nation: East Timorese vote overwhelmingly to secede from Indonesia, but ongoing militia violence insures a bloody transition to independence

In East Timor, Jakarta forfeited its mandate to govern through the sheer brutality displayed by its armed forces over 23 years. As many as 60,000 Timorese were thought to have been killed in the three months following the invasion. In all, a quarter of the population of less than a million may have died under Indonesian rule, many of them from disease and famine. To those horrors are now added the latest burnings and killings by various anti-separatist paramilitary marauders, many of whom are believed to be linked with the regular army. Tragically, all the good Indonesia did in East Timor - including building schools and roads as well as boosting local wealth levels tenfold - has been completely negated by the violence.

Ironically, by almost any objective standard, the autonomy package that Jakarta offered was a good deal for East Timor. It would have provided much more local governance than is enjoyed by any of Indonesia's other 26 provinces. Moreover, East Timor would be far better off economically by staying within Indonesia than by going its own way as a tiny, poorly educated, half-island with scant resources. Now, its 850,000 desperate people are likely to be utterly dependent on foreign aid for a long time. But that hardly mattered. The referendum might as well have been worded: "Do you want the Indonesian army out of East Timor?" The reply, of course, was a resounding, visceral "yes."

In some respects, it is hard to criticize President B.J. Habibie for doing what the international community has so long been clamoring for. Even so, he moved with undue haste in calling the referendum, especially for a leader without a legitimate political mandate. Given time, a government with a popular mandate could have revamped the armed forces' status and policies in East Timor, which conceivably could have allowed the territory to settle into a more comfortable relationship with Jakarta. And if a referendum on independence was to be called, it was sheer folly to conduct it without reining in elements in the military that all along seemed determined to sabotage it, or first disarming the bloody-minded militias.

So Indonesia now reaps what it has sown. But things stand to get much worse all around if Jakarta were to lapse into a kind of sullen vindictiveness. To be sure, the 78.5% East Timorese vote that rejected Indonesia's offer of autonomy in favor of eventual separation represents a huge loss of face. The Habibie government cannot be happy about having to shepherd East Timor toward independence, nor will any new administration that succeeds it, probably within a matter of months. But the vote is now reality, and Jakarta must deal with its aftermath responsibly. Most urgently, law and order have to be restored. The rampaging militias - and their backers in the military - must be corralled.

The Indonesians have many good reasons to want a stable independent East Timor on their borders. One is to prevent the territory's troubles from spilling over into the western half of Timor. Nor would Jakarta want streams of refugees pouring into other parts of the country. The way to restore security is now clear. Since the Indonesian military has been, at the very least, unwilling or unable to deal effectively with the militias, the dispatch of an international peacekeeping force is essential. Only politically neutral troops will be able to provide the necessary credibility to maintain order under the present circumstances. Though Jakarta recently hinted it may finally be ready to accept such a force, its imposition of martial law on East Timor suggests it intends to go it alone for some time yet.

Meanwhile, the rest of ASEAN should help in the reconstruction of East Timor. Unless the nation-in-waiting turns into a de facto dependency of the U.N. or Australia, it may one day become a member of the association. Southeast Asian countries may not be able to match Canberra or Lisbon in providing aid, but they can offer assistance in other ways. For example, the region has many civil servants - serving or retired - with a wealth of experience in nation-building. They can work for Dili, or act as its advisers. But first, peace must be restored. If there is one lesson the tragedy of East Timor has taught, it is that a government's sustained use of force against its own citizens is ultimately a losing proposition.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home


U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel ž at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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