Leading Article: Only consent can save Indonesia from disintegration

IT IS NOW becoming clear that the unfolding tragedy in East Timor constitutes the most dangerous crisis for South East Asia since the Vietnam war 25 years ago. Its epicentre may be merely one half of one of the thousands of islands which make up the Indonesian archipelago. But events there now threaten to undo, if they have not undone already, the chances of the world's fourth most populous country building a more democratic system.

Instead, Indonesia (or rather the modern ramshackle Javanese empire which replaced the colonial Dutch East Indies) seems to be facing a terrible choice: between relapse into outright military dictatorship, or gradual disintegration. Indeed, it is not impossible it will end up with both. That second alternative, however, would destroy a country today widely regarded as the main regional counterbalance against the emerging Asian superpower of China.

Seen in this light, the paralysis of the major nations in the face of the agony of the East Timorese becomes more understandable, if no more excusable. Quite simply, whatever course is adopted now carries huge dangers. There might have been a more painless solution had the international community laid down sterner terms for the independence referendum, in particular that Indonesia not be given responsibility for the security for the transition period. But that is by the way. Now we too face terrible choices of our own.

The first is to continue along present lines: much diplomatic huffing and puffing, but in practical terms little more. This course would doubtless satisfy the demands of geopolitical realpolitik as seen from Washington DC. But it would only further reduce the already diminished credibility of the United Nations under whose supervision the elections were carried out, and make a mockery of politicians (our own Foreign Secretary prominent among them) who indulge in the huffing and puffing.

The second is to respond to the world's outrage at the behaviour of the sanctioned militias by sending an armed UN-backed peacekeeping force to East Timor at once, without the approval of Jakarta. Legally as well as morally, that course would be wholly justified; the UN, after all, never recognised Indonesia's annexation of East Timor in 1975 (the same year, by no co-incidence, as the Communists were completing their victory in Vietnam). Alas, the moment has passed. A small but well-armed intervention launched from Australia might have worked when the militias were beginning their carnage. Today a larger force would be required, one which would take weeks to assemble. Its despatch would, moreover, probably only play into the hands of hardliners in the Indonesian military, who argue that they alone stand in the way of a foreign conspiracy to dismantle the nation.

But there is a third course - admittedly not perfect but one which offers the best hope of ending the violence while preserving a chance for political change for the better in Jakarta. It depends, crucially, on persuading Indonesia's rulers that its own best interests are served if order is restored in East Timor and the wishes of its people are respected, if necessary with the assistance of an outside force. The pressure must be directed at those who are calling the shots (literally) in the present crisis: not the hapless president B J Habibie whose political career must surely have been ended by it, but the generals. A first step must be the immediate and total severance of military links with Jakarta by the West - and in particular by its prime supplier, Britain, which still seems to believe that the Timor repression and the continuing delivery of Hawk jets to the perpetrators of that repression are two entirely separate matters.

Alongside military sanctions, we must use all available economic leverage on a country still reliant on international assistance to recover from financial collapse in 1997. An immediate suspension of IMF support to Indonesia, some have argued, could light the touchpaper of a new Asian financial crisis. But on balance the risk should be taken. The Asian economy now looks sufficiently robust to withstand the shock, while the brutal folly of the army's ways would be brought home to every Indonesian.

And one final thought: with the Cold War over, is Indonesia as we know it worth saving ? Ultimately, the crisis in East Timor can only be brought to an end by Indonesia itself. There the country's many faultlines converge - its ethnic and religious diversity, the lack of a sense of nationhood, the overbearing role of the military in its life - but not only there. From Sumatra to the Spice Islands to Irian Jaya, insurrection simmers. If not the generals, then at least opposition civilian politicians like Megawati Sukarnoputri, who aspire to lead it, surely realise that only consent, not coercion, can hold Indonesia together.

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'