ad info

 web features
 magazine archive
 customer service
  east asia
  southeast asia
  south asia
  central asia

Web-only Exclusives
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 story

OCTOBER 1, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 39

Keeping the Peace
A measure of calm returns to East Timor with the arrival of international troops. But the real challenge is not bringing peace but keeping it

Under the watchful eyes of Australian soldiers, jubilant East Timorese welcome the arrival of members of the multinational force at Dili's port
Anastasia Vrachnos for Asiaweek
The first part of the plan went smoothly - almost suspiciously so. In the early morning hours of Sept. 20, the first C-130 Hercules transport aircraft from Darwin landed at Dili's Comoro Airport, unloading the vanguard of the U.N.-sanctioned International Force for East Timor (Interfet). Despite earlier fears of confrontations with pro-Jakarta militiamen and even Indonesian soldiers themselves, the arriving contingent of largely Australian peacekeepers encountered little trouble as they quickly moved to take control of the city.

In fact, Indonesian troops on the ground appeared to give full support to the multinational force, leading Interfet commander Maj.-Gen. Peter Cosgrove to remark that the cooperation was "first class." By the end of the third day, Dili had been secured without a shot being fired and some 3,800 peacekeepers had landed via air or sea. Despite reports of sporadic violence in some parts of East Timor, the peacekeepers had few problems disarming and arresting militiamen. Operation Stabilize seemed to have started off on the right foot.

The landing of foreign troops was a source of joy for most East Timorese. Following the historic Aug. 30 referendum, in which 78.5% voted for independence, they had endured three weeks of hell as pro-integration militias and elements of the Indonesian army laid waste to the territory. (The U.N. Human Rights Commission is now examining alleged atrocities committed during the rampage.) But with the arrival of foreign troops, those that had participated in the violence either kept a low profile or went over to Indonesian-ruled West Timor.

Emotions are running high in Australia, too

Breaking News
CNN's latest stories on East Timor

Marching into Trouble The multinational peacekeeping force that landed this week is entering a minefield - just the first on what promises to be a long road to independence

As the thugs retreated, pro-independence East Timorese started to emerge from hiding, and the mood quickly turned jubilant. "Thank God for the foreigners!" said 32-year-old Juan de Tavarres, who had just brought his family back from the hills. Hernando de Gusmao, 45, was equally relieved: "Now we can return to our homes. We can at last feel safe." People danced in the streets of Dili, flashing V-for-victory signs. Young men sped through the town on a motorcycle, waving the blue, green and white flag of independent East Timor. In Dare, 10 km south of the capital, joyful residents cheered and thumped the hoods of vehicles carrying peacekeepers into town.

If the East Timorese were overjoyed, the international community too had a reason to be pleased. The deployment of the multinational force to East Timor represents a level of international cooperation rarely seen before. Leading Interfet is Australia, with a commitment of 4,500 troops. Thailand, which has pledged more than 1,000 soldiers, is serving as second-in-command. Troops and support personnel from all over the world, including other ASEAN members Singapore and the Philippines, have been congregating in Darwin on their way to East Timor. Even China, traditionally wary of intervening in the affairs of other nations, is sending a civilian police team.

The jubilation and satisfaction surrounding the East Timor mission, however, cannot hide the difficulties that remain. Dili is a burnt-out shell; the retreating militias have left behind a ravaged, looted town. "Independent East Timor will eat rocks," goes one defiant graffito scrawled on the side of a government building. Indeed, it is clear that East Timor, which was desperately poor to begin with, will be more dependent on outside aid than ever as it rebuilds itself virtually from scratch.

Then there is the matter of displaced East Timorese. Many survivors speak of being separated from loved ones during the violence. "I don't know if my friends are alive or dead," says Antonio Gomez, 26, who has been living off bananas and cassava in the hills for two weeks. Some 200,000 East Timorese were forcibly removed to camps in West Timor, many of them militia-controlled. Amid concerns over food and water shortages, there are rumors that these refugees will be relocated elsewhere in Indonesia. "It would make return almost impossible," says Sidney Jones of Human Rights Watch Asia. Aid workers fear that the refugees may later be used as bargaining pawns.

The pro-integrationists, who remain bitterly opposed to East Timor's separation from Indonesia and have demanded a partition of the territory, provide the final stumbling block. Filomeno de Jesus Hornai, deputy head of the pro-Jakarta Forum of Unity, Democracy and Justice, told local reporters in West Timor: "We don't want white people leading East Timor." While the militias have been relatively quiet since Interfet's deployment, they are still a potential threat to peace - a point that was reinforced when a Dutch journalist who had landed in East Timor on Sept. 21 was killed that same evening by suspected militiamen. A day before the first Interfet troops arrived in Dili, several militias joined together to form the National Struggle Front, which they called a "union of the necessary components to defend integration." Filomeno has vowed to "eat the hearts" of foreign soldiers entering East Timor.

While Interfet has encountered little trouble so far, observers say the real test may be in the coming weeks. "[The militias] will be smart enough to realize that there's no point in opposing the peacekeeping force at this early stage, under the nose of the world press," says one Indonesia-watcher. "If they are going to get involved, they'd be looking at small guerrilla units further down the track."

Just how big a threat the militias pose depends on how much support they get. Interfet troops could take full control of East Timor in a few months if there is no resistance. But, says a Western military attache, "it could take much, much longer if third parties are allowed to supply weapons and arms [to the militias]." An Australian intelligence analyst told Asiaweek: "What worries me is the real prospect that some elements of the Indonesian army might support militia militancy. We may see the army operating with the militias along the West Timor border."

What is perhaps most disconcerting is that the desire to support the militias may not be limited to elements in the Indonesian army. Whatever the merits of East Timor's pro-independence cause, Indonesians as a whole are upset at the prospect of a territorial split. What has especially raised their nationalistic ire is the perception that Australia has been too critical of Indonesia, too supportive of East Timor's independence and too eager to come in with troops. "We have a message to the Australians: Don't be so arrogant - as if you're the heroes of human rights," says Edi Sunarto, a securities-firm executive. "They should handle their own Aboriginal issue before they get involved in somebody else's territory." Many cannot fathom why Australia, which tacitly supported Indonesia's invasion of East Timor in 1975, is now suddenly enthusiastic about the territory's secession. "Indonesians feel a real sense of betrayal," says Ratih Harjono, author of a book on Australia-Indonesia relations and an adviser to Muslim leader Abdurrahman Wahid.

Even President B.J. Habibie's administration, which was responsible for bringing up the option of separation in the first place, has expressed its displeasure at Australia's "un-neighborly" attitude toward Indonesia. On Sept. 16, Jakarta announced that it had canceled a 1995 joint-security defense pact between the two countries. Minister for Politics and Security Feisal Tanjung said that the move was in protest against Canberra's condemnation of Indonesia's handling of the East Timor violence.

On Sept. 21, Habibie addressed parliament to defend his decisions to offer independence and to allow in foreign troops. "I did what I could do and what I think is the best for Indonesia," he said. He called on Indonesians to accept the vote result and urged the People's Consultative Assembly to ratify the separation. At the same time, he took the opportunity to throw a barb at Canberra, saying that "the attitude and actions of Australia regarding the problem of East Timor have been really excessive and unhelpful to efforts to maintain bilateral relations."

"We are quite happy to scrap ties with Australia," says Joko Mulyono, director-general of international trade. In response to Australian trade unions' boycott of Indonesian goods, he has sent letters to trade associations around the country, asking them to put a freeze on Australian goods and services. Given that Indonesia imports about $1.6 billion worth of Australian goods a year, Amarudin Saud of the Indonesian Importers' Association says that "they have more to lose than we do."

Australian Prime Minister John Howard has probably not helped bilateral ties with his comments in the latest issue of The Bulletin magazine. Envisioning a more assertive Australia, he indicated that the country, in view of its leadership role in the East Timor mission, would now seek greater international responsibilities. Under this "Howard Doctrine," Australia would increase its military expenditures and be prepared to become America's "deputy" in Asia. Such comments will no doubt reinforce the perception among Indonesians that Australia is seeking, in the words of Indonesia expert Harold Crouch, "some kind of colonial role."

Recent events may have put Canberra-Jakarta relations in deep freeze, but there could be a silver lining for Australia - namely, closer ties with other Asian countries. Canberra is delighted that so many Asian nations have joined the Interfet coalition. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer noted: "I've been particularly impressed by the tremendous support we've been given by Thailand,".

So far, the heightened nationalist sentiments in Indonesia have not translated into any concrete action, aside from demonstrations outside the Australian embassy (which was shot at by an unidentified gunman) and calls for a holy war by the youth wing of the Nahdlatul Ulama mass Muslim organization. But given the touchy nature of the situation, any excuse could be enough to trigger a more serious confrontation along the West Timor border. And that is one more complication in the tangled web that is the East Timor problem - and one more factor that Interfet strategists will have to bear in mind.
- With additional reporting by Anthony Davis / Darwin

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 at a cost

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

Launch CNN's Desktop Ticker and get the latest news, delivered right on your desktop!

Today on CNN

Back to the top   © 2000 Asiaweek. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.