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ASEAN's duplicity - Jose Ramos Horta

31 Oct 1999

ASEAN's duplicity

South China Morning Post, Ian Stewart

The East Timor saga not only highlighted serious shortcomings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which failed to respond quickly and effectively to brutality in its backyard, but also demonstrated that not everybody in the region thinks it is a great club to join.

The dissenting voice came from Jose Ramos Horta, the East Timorese spokesman, who singled out Malaysia for special criticism. His blunt remarks brought a response from Malaysia's permanent representative to the United Nations in the oblique language beloved by diplomats in Southeast Asia to affect politeness while leaving no doubt about the message.

Hasmy Agam said Malaysia took pride in the fact that its troops had carried out their duties professionally and in a fair and impartial manner in all 22 UN peacekeeping operations in which it had been involved.

"I feel compelled to make this point because doubts have been raised from a particular quarter about the appropriateness of Malaysia playing a peacekeeping role in a neighbouring territory," he said.

He was clearly referring to Mr Ramos Horta, who, in a Sydney luncheon address, described Asean members as "accomplices of Indonesia" and said they would not be allowed to impose themselves on East Timor.

Mr Ramos Horta said the East Timorese could accept Australian, New Zealand or Fijian command of the force but would not accept any Asean member because they were not neutral. He said he was totally opposed to Malaysia leading the UN peacekeeping efforts. "Malaysia is always on the side of Indonesia," he said.

Mr Ramos Horta also said East Timor was "part of South Pacific nations" and "not part of Asean".

This prompted the Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, to say that Malaysia was not biased against the East Timorese and it was wrong to assume that Malaysians did not like them.

"We were hoping that when they became independent, they would join Asean but obviously someone has been telling them that they should not join Asean and they have made a declaration not to join Asean," he said.

In addition to implying the Nobel Peace Prize laureate was incapable of making up his mind, Dr Mahathir said it was almost standard procedure in the West that people who opposed "so-called authoritarian governments" should be given Nobel Peace prizes.

While Mr Ramos Horta may have been generous enough not to take this personally, he could hardly ignore the impression of conflict between the assurance of impartiality by Mr Hasmy and statements of his Prime Minister.

Dr Mahathir said the referendum in which East Timorese chose independence was not fair because Indonesia was not given the opportunity to explain to the people why the territory should remain within the republic.

He criticised the "rather heavy-handed" way Australian troops operated in East Timor.

"We are not against the militias or the East Timorese," he said.

"We want peace."

So did the people of East Timor. But the militias opposing independence, who were trained, armed and supported by the Indonesian military, set about imposing a reign of terror aimed at blocking separation from Indonesia. If the multinational force led by Australia had not moved in, the toll of murder victims and burned villages would have continued to mount.

Mr Ramos Horta's disregard for Asean is understandable. Asean leaders without exception forbore to condemn the rampaging militias for fear of angering a powerful neighbour. In these circumstances it is not surprising that he has decided that "the Asean way" is not the way for East Timor.

Ian Stewart is the Post correspondent in Kuala Lumpur.

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