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East Timor is Independent: So Long As It Does As It's Told - President Bush cannot leave the world's newest state alone

23 May 2002

It's a hard world to be born into, even for nation-states. This week East Timor, half of a small island a few hundred miles north of Australia, became the youngest member of the so-called international community. Out went a temporary UN administration, established three years ago after Indonesian troops had run amok when the Timorese voted in a referendum for independence. In came the leaders of one of the bravest resistance movements of modern times, who fought for two decades in the mountains and doggedly lobbied in foreign capitals to keep East Timor's illegal occupation on the international agenda.

One might have thought such a small country with so difficult a history might have been granted a few years of innocence as it finally achieved sovereignty. But no. The dread hand of American hegemony, corporate as well as diplomatic, was already in action, squeezing the embryo in the womb.

Unlike Bosnia, Cambodia, Haiti and Kosovo, where the UN recently had or still has advisory or administrative missions, East Timor is rich. It has large oil and gas reserves under the sea which separates the country from Australia. Rare among small developing states, East Timor ought to be able to stand on its own feet and avoid foreign debt.

So, one of the first decisions the UN administration took when it arrived in Dili in 1999 to help to prepare the country for independence was to open negotiations with Australia on a new energy treaty on East Timor's behalf. It could have waited and left the issue for the Timorese to handle after independence. But UN officials felt they had to go forward, even though it put the UN in a unique position of sitting as an adversary across the table from a sovereign government, Australia, which is a wealthy and powerful member of the UN system.

The UN put up a tough fight to get a better deal from Australia and the mighty oil companies, including US-based Phillips Petroleum, than the one which Indonesia had made years earlier. The surprise came last year when the US started warning East Timor not to push Australia too hard shortly after Vice-President Dick Cheney had received Australian representatives in his Washington office. Mr Cheney is, of course, an oil-man with continuing contacts with businessmen but here he was, using the weight of his governmental position, to interfere in discussions between the UN and a foreign government. Odd, but symptomatic of the world tiny East Timor was entering. East Timor's UN negotiators resisted and did not give way.

More recently, it was the turn of the Bush administration's "moderate", the secretary of state, Colin Powell. He wrote to the incoming government a month ago, warning them to give a written promise not to prosecute any US citizens for crimes against humanity under the procedures of the newly established international criminal court. Otherwise the US Congress would find it difficult to go on giving aid, he advised them.

There are no US troops in the UN peacekeeping force in East Timor, making the US demand almost entirely theoretical. The urgency of the pledge being demanded from East Timor was hard to see, let alone the propriety of forcing a country to make exceptions to one of the first international treaties it intends to sign, but on this occasion the Timorese gave in. The principle is the thing: even embryonic states have to make a declaration of dependence to the world's only remaining empire before they assume their notional "independence".

If the US historical role in East Timor's long struggle for sovereignty had been benign, the Bush administration's pressure tactics might seem less grotesque. But Washington's hands have long been covered in blood. Previously classified documents released last December show how Henry Kissinger, then secretary of state, approved Indonesia's plans to invade East Timor after the Portuguese, the original colonizers, pulled out in 1975. In "talking points" prepared for President Gerald Ford's visit to Jakarta in December 1975, Kissinger proposed to double US military aid to Indonesia. He also described the "merger of East Timor with Indonesia" as "a reasonable solution".

American intelligence saw the mounting preparations for an invasion and when Ford met General Suharto, the Indonesian dictator told him: "We want your understanding, if we deem it necessary to take rapid or drastic action." Ford answered: "We will understand and not press you on the issue." Kissinger's only worries were that US-made weapons not be used and no military action be taken until he and Ford got out of Indonesia. "If you have made plans, we will do our best to keep everyone quiet until the president returns home," Kissinger told Suharto.

The invasion happened two days later when the American party had moved on to the Philippines. During the course of the 24-year Indonesian occupation up to 200,000 Timorese are thought to have died. Bill Clinton, who represented the US at the UN hand-over ceremony in Dili on Sunday, had a better record on East Timor but for many Timorese he is a negative symbol, a man of inaction.

When Indonesia's new post-Suharto government agreed in May 1999 to permit a referendum on independence, security was the decisive issue. Even though it was well-known that the Indonesian army had already begun to organize local militias to harass and murder supporters of independence, the UN security council agreed to let Indonesia, rather than an international peacekeeping force, maintain security for the pre-referendum period.

Publicly, the argument was that Indonesia had already made a huge concession by agreeing to a referendum. To insist on foreign peace-keepers would be a demand too far. Privately, it was said the US would exert pressure on the Indonesian government, which was desperate for IMF loans, to rein in the army and militias. There need be no worries about security.

Clinton let the Timorese down. If he did put pressure on Indonesia, it had no effect. Violence rose to a climax in the hours after polling when it became clear that voters had opted for freedom and against Indonesia. Troops and militias ransacked Dili and other towns and villages, transporting hundreds of thousands of people to West Timor and forcing the rest of the population to flee to the hills. Only then did the US finally weigh in, under the pressure of the international media, and persuade the Indonesians to accept the referendum result, withdraw their forces and allow in foreign peacekeepers.

Even now, the US is failing to press Indonesia to take seriously the tribunal set up in Jakarta to try former generals and militia leaders or to hand over suspects indicted in East Timor for trial in Dili. As part of the "war on terrorism", senior US administration officials want to relax restrictions on contacts with the Indonesian military.

Far from pressing tiny East Timor to toe the US rejectionist line on the international criminal court, the Bush administration would do better to get justice done for the Timorese as they become a nation-state at last. There is not much chance of that.

Jonathan Steele
Published in the Guardian © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

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