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East Timor - A Fresh Start?

8 November 1999

By Scott Burchill

Sometimes statistics tell a grim tale. In the first weeks of September this year, 70% of all public buildings and private residences in East Timor were destroyed. At least 75% of the population of the territory was displaced, with over 260,000 people being driven across the border into Indonesian West Timor. Even more ominously, out of an estimated population of 850,000 at the time of the 30 August ballot for independence, 200,000 people are still unaccounted for - though InterFET believes that if more people than first thought have been scattered around the archipelago, this figure could be between 80,000 and 130,000. Optimists presume that most of these people are still hiding in the mountains, too traumatised to return to their villages. Pessimists fear that many may have been slaughtered by Indonesian military forces (TNI) and their militia proxies. "We're missing an awful lot of people here", says Ross Mountain, the UN co-ordinator for humanitarian affairs in East Timor.

According to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, rarely has such a short crisis resulted in such extensive damage or touched such a large proportion of the population.

For those who welcomed the election of President Abdurrahaman Wahid and his new government as an opportunity to swiftly resolve the crisis, the early signs have not been positive. According to Jakarta's own National Commission on Human Rights, systematic human rights abuses are continuing in the West Timor refugee camps controlled by militia. Abductions and hostage taking, killings, sexual assault and the forced recruitment of East Timorese into the militias are a daily occurrence.

On a recent private trip to West Timor, Australian MP Kevin Rudd claimed that NGO and UN humanitarian agencies have been unable to visit half of the refugee camps in West Timor, specifically those under militia control in the Belu district (eastern part of West Timor). At the same time on an official visit to province, US Ambassador to Indonesia Robert Gelbard said he was alarmed by the ongoing influence of pro-Jakarta militia in refugee camps in Kupang and Atambua: "bad things are happening in the militia-controlled camps in West Timor, where hundreds of thousands of East Timorese are trapped..", he told reporters.

Although UN Security Council resolution 1264 (1999) stressed that it was "the responsibility of the Indonesian authorities to take immediate and effective measures to ensure the safe return of refugees to East Timor", only 20,000 of an estimated 260,000 displaced people have been allowed to go home.

It also appears that the new government has made little effort to disarm the militias, as they are required to do under Security Council resolution 1246 (1999), or taken steps to ensure that they cannot conduct cross border operations against civilians, InterFET or UNTAET forces.

In light of Indonesia's behaviour in East Timor, an act of contrition for the violence and destruction might have been expected from the first democratically elected government in Jakarta since the mid 1950s. This would have accelerated Indonesia's return to the society of states, and signaled a break with it's recent status as an international pariah.

It appears, however, that although an apology is required, it is one that should come from Canberra to Jakarta. President Wahid has said that Australia was "pissing in our face" on the Timor issue and that he would prefer relations with Canberra to "remain cool" with a restoration of warmth depending "on Australia, if they realise their mistakes before". Indonesia's new foreign minister Alwi Shihab agrees, saying that "it is enough that they know we were angry and displeased".

Welcome to a world that is truly surreal, one where the perpetrators of heinous crimes expect apologies from those who exposed and curtailed their genocidal behaviour. Does the new government in Jakarta seriously expect Canberra to say sorry for coming to the rescue of an unarmed civilian population that was being terrorised by its armed forces and their militias? Apparently it does. What "mistakes" did Australia make? I can think of two.

Canberra waited too long before preparing for a peace enforcement deployment and showed too much respect for Indonesia's illegal sovereign claim to the territory. And what exactly is Jakarta "angry and displeased about"? Perhaps it's the realisation of its army's contempt for basic human decency and its own preparedness to breach international law.

Predictably, President Wahid's views have struck a chord with those in Australia who want an early restoration of "good relations" with Jakarta. The editor of The Australian thinks it is time for Canberra "to withdraw from the military leadership role" in East Timor because "an ongoing military presence by Australia could hinder the peace process by continuing to antagonise militia groups", something that must be avoided at all costs. He also berates resistance leader Xanana Gusmao for wearing army fatigues during his first public appearances in East Timor after an absence of 7 years. According to The Australian, Mr Gusmao should not consider himself a military commander and understand that dressing in 'jungle greens' could be seen by some as "adversarial": a business suit is more reassuring.

The foreign editor of The Australian, Greg Sheridan, has gone further in his desire for business as usual with Jakarta. Attempting to exculpate Jakarta for its crimes committed in East Timor, Sheridan argues that "the Indonesian people are not the same thing as the Indonesian military", who are presumably from Mars or another galaxy. According to Sheridan, the cause of all the trouble is Mr Howard's unfortunate habit of listening to the views of his constituents: "the Government's worst statement was the Prime Minister saying in parliament recently that he wanted foreign policy to be in step with public opinion", an appalling prospect given the exemplary performance of our foreign policy elite in recent years.

Veteran Indonesian analyst, Bruce Grant, also sees Mr Howard as the problem.

According to Grant, the Prime Minister is "suspect" in Asia because he is a monarchist, lacks "an emotional commitment to the fortunes of the region", and loves cricket "which does not help in Indonesia". Displaying a cultural deference is still Grant's recommended strategy for engaging with Asia. The onus is on Australia, and only Australia, to change its ways. There is no suggestion of reciprocity, even in the light of recent disturbing events to the country's north. In Grant's world 'Asian values' and batik shirts are in, colonial sports and liberal democratic principles are out.

In his autobiography, Bill Hayden noted that shortly after becoming foreign minister in 1983, he "detected a preference among some to be overly agreeable towards certain outside interests and accordingly not independent enough in catering for the national interest. At its worst this could manifest itself in a severe infection of 'localitis', where a diplomat serving too long at an overseas post came to be more identified with the host country's interests than Australia's".

Hayden has identified a widespread condition which continues to afflict Australian journalists and policy makers. In a decent world, journalists who got Indonesia and East Timor so badly wrong for so long would admit their errors, stop criticising the victims of these terrible crimes as well as those who came to their assistance, and seek alternative employment. They would also insist that a fresh start to the bilateral relationship with Indonesia should, at the very least, await an admission of responsibility for what the UN believes could constitute crimes against humanity, and an immediate removal of the threat of militia violence. In a decent world.

Scott Burchill
Lecturer in International Relations
School of Australian and International Studies Deakin University, Australia

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