To save East Timor, we must make life hard for the generals

I am a great believer in whacking totalitarian monsters. But if you go in, you go in to win

ROBIN COOK is absolutely right. The idea that an international force can march into East Timor straightaway and attack the Indonesian army is nonsense. It is shamefully belated, but there is now a growing political consensus that action of some kind is necessary. But military intervention will not happen now, because it simply wouldn't work.

Here are the realities. The Indonesian army is among the biggest and best-equipped in the world (thanks to our own Government and others in the West). It has been fighting in Timor for more than 20 years and would put up a bitter struggle against any invaders. From a purely logistical point of view the best the international community can do right now is to muster a few thousand troops from Australia and New Zealand; there is no sign yet that other Asian countries would support such a move. This is still a region where the apologists of Asian values - "do what you like to your own people, just don't complain about what I do to mine" - hold considerable sway.

To get American, British or other foreign troops involved would take weeks. In any case, they would never enter Timor without some Asian component to lead the way. It would look much too like a colonial expedition, white boys in jungle fatigues heading off to teach the natives a lesson. This is not Rwanda, where the swift deployment of airborne troops would have been politically feasible and militarily effective; nor is it like Kosovo or Iraq, where a military build-up took place over months. This is East Timor, betrayed by its Asian neighbours and the West for a generation.

If you want a comparison, then think not of our war against Milosevic, but rather the American attempts to crush the Somali warlords in 1993. Then we had highly public casualties and an effective military defeat. That would undoubtedly be the consequence of any immediate military action against the Indonesians.

Some, who have heard me argue the case for intervention in Rwanda and the Balkans, may think I have abandoned core principles here. Quite the opposite. In order to preserve faith in the idea of intervention, you must make sure never to rush in where you are unprepared and likely to be defeated. I am a great believer in whacking totalitarian monsters and dictators over the head; it is not a prospect that presents me with any qualms of conscience. But if you do go in, you go in to win. And right now the conditions in East Timor look anything but propitious. The consequences of failed intervention are well recorded; a million people were abandoned to die in Rwanda because the world was terrified of another Somalia.

Of course, we should have been prepared for this catastrophe. Anybody remotely interested in East Timor knew that the militias and the military planned to wreak havoc. Whatever our own leaders - Clinton, Blair, Howard in Australia - may have communicated to the Indonesian government in advance of the outbreak of violence, had no effect. (I am presuming, perhaps wrongly, that they bothered to issue some warning). The UN itself, the international media and presumably every intelligence agency worth its salt knew that democracy would be trampled underfoot. But good men did nothing. Again.

The reason is simple enough. East Timor doesn't really matter to the leaders of the West. It matters now only because camera crews and reporters have conveyed to us the horror of the militia uprising, and our politicians are embarrassed into caring. Now, on the back foot, they frantically try to cobble together a policy: Clinton warns the generals that they must stop the violence or else. But the problem is that East Timor certainly matters to the murderous Indonesian generals and their local henchmen.

There is an ironic historical parallel; ironic because it involves the Portuguese,the former colonial masters of East Timor, who are now to the forefront of international calls for action against Jakarta. Back in the early Seventies, it was a Portuguese dictatorship that prolonged vicious wars in the colonies of Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau - believing, much as the Indonesian generals do about East Timor, that these pieces of far-flung territory represented the cornerstone of their power. Lose the colonial battle, and their hold on political power would be destroyed. Those colonial wars were lost and in 1974 idealistic young army officers staged a coup which led to the establishment of a democracy in Portugal. The Indonesians are a colonial power in East Timor; claims that it is part of Indonesia are bunkum. Would that the younger officers of the Indonesian army took a similar line to that of the Portuguese leftists of 1975.

The militias are Indonesia's creation, much as the murder squads that roamed South Africa's townships in the dying days of apartheid were the creatures of the white security establishment. They have no organic life of their own. Deal with the generals, and the militias will vanish. And so the question of the hour is just how we deal with the generals.

There is one language they understand: sanctions. Start with what effects them most directly - the supply of military equipment. Our Government could lead the way, and ban all sales of hardware to Jakarta. That it has taken so long for us actively to contemplate such a move is disgraceful, but there you have it: ethical foreign policy has its financial boundaries.

The threat of financial sanctions, through the IMF and in terms of bilateral aid from Western nations, must be real. Just as in South Africa, there will be arguments that the people who really suffer from this are ordinary Indonesians. That may or may not be true, but it misses the point. We are faced with a great evil, and in trying to defeat it sanctions are a morally justifiable - as well being a practical - weapon. Right now we simply don't know who is ruling Indonesia, but whoever it is, Habibie or the generals, they need our money.

While the financial squeeze is imposed on Jakarta, a concerted military build-up should be under way. It could turn out that an invasion becomes viable. But it is more likely that sanctions will have their effect, and we shall end up committing ourselves to a prolonged peace enforcement exercise. We need a force that is led by Asian countries but with a strong Western component, a force that is well armed and has an unambiguous mandate. None of the half-hearted nonsense that led us to grief in Bosnia.

The Indonesian military may by now have achieved what it wants in East Timor. The populace are terrified and in flight, the international community has been driven out, and the democratic verdict on 25 years of Indonesian hegemony has been overturned. But they are wrong, and they are gambling with all of Indonesia if they turn this into a prolonged conflict with the international community. It could take weeks before the result bears fruit, but I suspect that with massive pressure now the generals will bow much more quickly than that.

Of course, we should intervene. Every instinct in my body tells me we have a moral duty to East Timor. But the greatest danger we face is defeat at the hands of a powerful army, which would use its victory to impose an eternal hegemony on East Timor. There are, fortunately, alternatives; we should employ them.

The writer is a special correspondent for the BBC

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris
architecture

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
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.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

    The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album