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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 15, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 41

Unease Over East Timor
Indonesia's neighbors question their roles
By SANGWON SUH

It was perhaps inevitable. At the height of the militia-led violence in East Timor, horrified countries were falling over themselves to offer their services in bringing peace to the territory. But now that the dust has settled somewhat, the parties have been singing a slightly different tune. As the humanitarian urgency fades, other considerations have been coming to the fore - namely, the financial cost of stationing troops in East Timor and the diplomatic cost of offending Indonesia, which, even while allowing in peacekeepers, has never hidden its displeasure at having foreign troops on its soil. Thus, the participating countries, especially Indonesia's ASEAN neighbors, have been entertaining second thoughts about their involvement.

    ALSO IN ASIAWEEK
Indonesia
The presidency is up for grabs
• Backlash Why ASEAN is now uncomfortable with the international peacekeeping force in East Timor
• Reporter's Notebook West Timor as dangerous neighbor

Thailand
The fallout from the Myanmar embassy siege

Malaysia
Another chapter in the Anwar poisoning saga

Japan
Why the country can't get its nuclear power act together

Philippines
Among Estrada's problems: a Taiwan air dispute

  RELATED STORIES
Indonesia
With political and financial uncertainty deepening, the people's patience is running out with the country's big institutions - the presidency, military, parliament (10/08/99)

Horse-trading
Why Megawati gave the military a plum post (10/08/99)

East Timor
What Falintil is up to (10/08/99)

Malaysia was equivocating even before the peacekeepers went in. While the Australian-led International Force for East Timor (Interfet) was being formed, Kuala Lumpur flip-flopped over whether it would contribute troops. In the end, it opted for a token force of about 30, though it has pledged a larger contingent once the U.N. formally takes over the peacekeeping duty. Seoul is sending 419 troops - over the strong objections of oppositionists, who claim the move will damage ties with Indonesia. Even Australia, which has been the most eager to intervene, is swallowing hard at the financial burden and calling on the U.N. to take over quickly.

Perhaps the country doing the most rethinking is Thailand. As deputy commander of the Interfet mission, Thailand has committed 1,500 troops, but a widespread feeling in Bangkok is that the government has acted too rashly. "[The decision] was made so fast," says Kantathi Suphamongkhon, a foreign-affairs expert with the new Thai Rak Thai Party. "There are so many implications, because things could go wrong in East Timor. Have we thought of all that?" With most other ASEAN members doing nothing or sending just token contingents, many Thais are worried that they might be the ones feeling the brunt of any diplomatic fallout.

In this new climate, Asian countries have been careful not to aggravate Indonesia further. When the U.N. Human Rights Commission was debating whether to launch an international inquiry into alleged atrocities in East Timor, most Asian members voted against the proposal - including the Philippines. (The resolution passed anyway.) Manila explained that it was following the ASEAN policy of non-interference in each other's affairs. Critics at home pointed out that the policy had not stopped President Joseph Estrada from speaking out in support of Malaysia's sacked deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim last year. Daisy Fuentes, deputy House speaker and a member of Estrada's own party, fumed at her country's "no" vote: "It is like seeing the neighbor's children being raped and not reporting it to the police."

A key question, though, is: Who are the police? The perception in some quarters is that Australia has appointed itself the region's policeman and is foisting its own East Timor agenda on others. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad criticized the "heavy-handedness" of Australia, especially its troops on the ground. "Is it necessary to point guns at people who are unarmed?" he asked, perhaps forgetting that many of the militiamen were indeed armed and caches of weapons were found.

Australian PM John Howard did little to assuage underlying ASEAN resentment when he recently told a magazine about his so-called Howard Doctrine, which seemed to envision a more assertive Australia that would act as America's deputy in the region. Although Howard's actual comments were not as far-reaching as they were made out to be, ASEAN nations nevertheless reacted with hostility. "There is no need for any country to play a role as a leader, commander or deputy," said Malaysian Deputy PM Abdullah Badawi. Even Malaysia's opposition chimed in to condemn the idea.

All the criticisms of Australia, however, cannot hide that ASEAN's shortcomings were laid bare by East Timor. Some may denounce Australia's aggressiveness, but it remains that ASEAN displayed little inclination to take the leadership role in defusing the crisis. U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen recently told Bangkok's The Nation daily: "If there were other nations who wished to take the primary role, that certainly could have occurred."

The problem is that ASEAN's obsession with maintaining a front of unity and avoiding offending one another has made it incapable of decisive action in this kind of situation. Given that the grouping represents a gamut of contrasting, even opposing, political ideologies, extra effort is certainly needed to keep the members together. Still, ASEAN will need to find a way to take a more proactive approach in future backyard crises. Otherwise, it may well find outsiders intervening again - and itself sliding into irrelevance.

- With bureau reporting

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