FOCUS: CRISIS IN EAST TIMOR: Can the world bring Indonesia to heel?

As the UN puts pressure on Jakarta, it seems even the generals may now be powerless to call off the militias

Watching the breakfast television news from Jakarta is a good way to understand why the world is finding it so difficult to get Indonesia to understand its point of view on East Timor.

Last year, during the May disturbances which brought down President Suharto, the television journalists documented the student demonstrations and the brutal military response with quiet subversiveness, even though they were still under the effective control of a dictatorship. In the 18 months since, they have transformed themselves into one of the freest, most irreverent and diverse media in Asia.

But as soon as the topic of East Timor came up, those qualities were nowhere to be seen. The way the breakfast news tackled last week's crisis would have made President Suharto proud. There was no mention of the executions, burnings and mass deportations, supervised and carried out by the Indonesian army. Instead the official fiction was maintained - that these were the spontaneous actions of militia men understandably outraged at a vote for independence which had been rigged by the UN. There were long lingering shots of UN, Australian and British flags being burned and stamped upon by screeching demonstrators in Jakarta, and the prevailing tone was shrill, defensive and nationalistic.

This was not the work of tame journalists cowed by an all-controlling security apparatus, but an accurate reflection of the sentiments of many millions of Indonesians. Of all the obstacles to peace, this is the most dangerous and the least understood.

The struggle to bring Indonesia to heel is a battle that requires victory on three fronts: in East Timor, at the highest levels of international diplomacy, and in Indonesia itself.

For the time being, the situation on the ground is almost, but not quite, lost. Yesterday, after saying goodbye to 120 of their colleagues the day before, a core of 84 international staff were clinging on in the capital, Dili, in the besieged offices of the UN Assistance Mission in East Timor (Unamet). Along with the fluctuating population of some 1,000 refugees who are camped out beside them, they are completely defenceless. Every day, Indonesian soldiers and militia men fire automatic rifles over, and occasionally into, the compound; on Friday, two men threatened to lob hand grenades inside after they were refused the keys to UN cars.

The scene outside was described by the British ambassador to the UN, who visited Dili yesterday with a team of Security Council representatives: "Dili is a terrible mess, no longer a real town ... houses burnt, no ordinary population on the street, a town totally destroyed, a community completely dispersed. It's a living hell here."

The rest of the territory is in an information blackout, illuminated intermittently by reports of massacres, forced evacuations and vast numbers of refugees. Unamet's presence now is almost completely symbolic, a token of continuing international commitment to East Timor intended to buy time for the gathering forces of international outrage.

In recent days, an impressive force has been marshalled. In Auckland, New Zealand, the annual meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation forum (Apec), has been turned into an East Timor summit, attended by the leaders of 21 countries, including Bill Clinton, the Australian prime minister, John Howard, and the Chinese president, Jiang Zemin. Seven nations stepped forward on Saturday to form a "coalition of the willing" to help restore peace in East Timor as the US President announced the cancellation of military sales to Indonesia and accused its army of aiding and abetting the violence in the territory.

Australia's prime minister, John Howard, spearheading the initiative, said Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Britain, Canada, the Philippines and Portugal had given firm commitments to join any UN-mandated peacekeeping force in East Timor - but only if Indonesia would allow it. The United States, Sweden, Thailand and France agreed in principle to support such a force in a way that had yet to be defined, Howard told reporters.

Howard said earlier that a force of up to 8,000 peacekeepers would be needed for an East Timor peace mission.

In New York on Thursday, the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, warned Indonesia of its "responsibility for what could amount ... to crimes against humanity". But even if the widespread concern can be forged into a common sense of purpose, the question remains where pressure should be applied.

In the past few weeks, it has become almost impossible to speak of Indonesian policy or even of the Indonesian government. President BJ Habibie, who initiated the referendum last January, has clearly lost control of events. Last week diplomats believed, incorrectly as it turned out, that he was on the verge of resigning. But whether he stays or goes probably makes little difference. A de facto military coup has taken place by stealth.

The man most widely regarded as having assumed power is the armed forces commander, General Wiranto, but even this is not certain. Diplomats travelling with Wiranto to Dili yesterday said that even he seemed shocked by what he saw. Before leaving, he announced that Indonesia might, after all, tolerate armed international peacekeepers. Such an announcement could be the breakthrough the world has been waiting for, but the hurried manner in which it was made suggests an even more alarming possibility: that Wiranto is no more in control of the defence forces than Habibie is of Indonesia.

Since Suharto's fall, Indonesia has become a country deeply divided, along political, cultural and ethnic lines. It is natural for diplomats to think of countries as unified forces, and easy to regard Indonesia as a monolithic force of evil and destruction. But the truth - and the danger - may be the opposite. Rather than being directed from on high, the suffering in East Timor may be the result of insubordination and opportunism at a lower level.

But if the diplomatic process is fraught with problems, the hardest battle of all will be for Indonesian opinion. Until this year, the fate of East Timor was a matter of indifference to most Indonesians. Even among the educated and liberal elite, people who would fight for their own fragile democracy, there is a naive incomprehension of the yearnings of the East Timorese. Recently, one hears more and more about Timorese "ingratitude", after all that Jakarta has "done" for the backward territory.

Indonesia is a country born out of a nationalist struggle against Dutch colonialists, with a history of anti-Western agitation. For years, the founding president, Sukarno, pursued a policy of "konfrontasi" with Europe and the USA, famously telling the West to "go to hell with your aid". Recent events in Jakarta suggest that a susceptibility to xenophobic rhetoric is still there. "If the US, Australia and New Zealand defiantly send troops to East Timor," shouted a protester in Jakarta yesterday, "there will be no guarantee for the safety of those countries' expatriates living in Jakarta."

The immediate challenge facing the UN and the world is how to save East Timor from the Indonesian military. But as time passes a new problem will emerge: how to save Indonesia from itself.

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