The "international community", notably the US and Australia, were quietly complicit in Indonesia's takeover of East Timor in 1975. It was seen as more important to maintain friendly relations with an anti-Communist ally in South-east Asia (and gain access to its enormous market) than to support a poor and demographically insignificant people.
Now that things have changed, we want to play the good guys. But we do so with all the subtlety and foresight of a bull in a china shop. We pressed Indonesia to settle the East Timor issue quickly, when - reeling as it is from recent economic and political turmoil, and from consequent factionalism within the military - it was ill-equipped to do so. Anyone who knows anything about Indonesia could have told you that there would be violence in the wake of a plebiscite on independence, but what plans were in place to deal with it? None, it would seem, to judge by the current confusion and hand-wringing.
Now there is the talk of "sanctions" and "peace-keeping forces", which all sounds depressingly familiar. Those who wield power in the "international community" would do well to bear in mind that the political, ethnic and religious fault-lines in Indonesia are very deep and geographically very complex. The archipelago contains all the ingredients for an explosive Balkanisation that would make the Yugoslav wars of this last decade pale by comparison. Careless interventions could cost millions of lives.
Centre for English Language Studies
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