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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.