FOCUS: CRISIS IN EAST TIMOR: Hawkish Australians are in the mood for action

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE CALLER to the radio programme was unequivocal, writes Kathy Marks in Sydney. Australia faced a stark choice, he said: send troops to East Timor in the next few days, or stand by while thousands of civilians are slaughtered on the country's doorstep.

The argument was a simplification but the sentiments reflect a large chunk of Australian public opinion. As the nation contemplates the prospect of its troops going into action for the first time since Vietnam, the mood is decidedly hawkish, fuelled by television pictures of the desperate faces of East Timorese UN workers evacuated to Darwin on Friday.

Perched on the edge of South-east Asia, Australians cannot help but take an interest in the region. Dili, the East Timorese capital, is just 400 miles from Darwin - a short hop compared to the vast spaces separating Australian cities. To many people here, events across the Timor Sea represent a direct security threat.

In 1975 Australia was the only country to recognise Indonesia's annexation of East Timor. Now most newspapers, including the usually conservative Australian, back intervention, with or without Jakarta's consent. In Melbourne, Perth and every other state capital last week, there have been mass demonstrations and pickets of the Indonesian airline Garuda. But public opinion could easily change. As one letter-writer to the Sydney Morning Herald pointed out, support for military action will falter "when the body bags of Australian troops start coming home".

Already some people here are saying quietly that East Timor should be left to sort out its own problems. And with tens of thousands of people displaced so close to home, it is only a matter of time before concerns are voiced about a new wave of Asian refugees washing up on Australian shores.