Leading Article: The army must back off throughout Indonesia, not just in East Timor

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THE ARRIVAL of United Nations troops in East Timor yesterday was a belated acknowledgement of the need to do something for a people who have been betrayed too often. There is more to be ashamed of than to be proud of in the international reaction to unfolding events in East Timor in recent months. None the less, the fact that the world is reacting at all should be seen as a kind of progress.

This last year of the century has been remarkable in terms of international reaction to events elsewhere. In the Balkans, years of hesitation finally culminated in the military intervention against Slobodan Milosevic that governments had been resisting for so long. In East Timor, too, passiveness suddenly gave way to a much more active role.

Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary-general, declared yesterday that "a global era requires global engagement." There is an obvious danger. If UN operations abroad come to be seen as the armed wing of American foreign policy, then things will have gone from bad to worse. For the moment, however, an international consensus exists that brutal behaviour is unacceptable, period. The world in which US governments shamelessly propped up dodgy governments in Latin America and elsewhere is long gone.

Elsewhere, too, natural justice has come to play a role. Australia, Indonesia's nearest large neighbour, was shamefully cynical in its response to the original invasion of East Timor in 1975. Now, Australia has been at the forefront of pressing for strong intervention. Britain, too, has learned lessons - less thoroughly than Robin Cook would have us believe, but let us be grateful for small mercies - about selling arms to dictators who will eventually in any case be toppled.

In the present circumstances, it seems like a black irony to talk of the "liberation" of East Timor. How can one talk of "liberation" in an area which has seen only death and destruction in recent weeks? None the less, the contradiction is not complete. The destruction in Kosovo was on a grand scale. But Albanians returning to their homes were grateful for the fact that they were able to return.

The most important task now is to squeeze the army out of Indonesian politics for all time. As David Usborne's report in yesterday's Independent vividly confirmed, the complicity of the military in murder in recent weeks has been direct and brutal. The international climate needs to continue to change so that regimes linked to the military no longer have (to adapt the terminology of Mao Tse-tung) a sea in which they can swim.

The withdrawal of the army from the political stage would not in itself solve the country's problems. The multiple identities within the huge archipelago that makes up Indonesia mean that enormous instability could result from a loosening of the strings. The alternative, however, is just as daunting: a bottling up of tensions that will eventually explode in bloodshed across the country and beyond its borders.

The world did nothing when the first act of the current drama was played out, with a gross act of injustice against the people of East Timor. We must hope now for determination in facing up to a government which - events of recent weeks would suggest - has lost little of its cynical nerve. The Indonesian military must be forced to back off, however difficult the task may be.