East Timor in turmoil: Worried Australia puts its forces on `heightened alert'

Click to follow
AUSTRALIA'S DECISION to put its armed forces on emergency alert reflects not only its obviously pivotal role in any international intervention force in East Timor. It also underlines how Australia is the country with the most to lose if the bloody chaos 400 miles to its north becomes a general Indonesian conflagration.

Indonesia is the island continent's closest neighbour in South-east Asia, and the source of its greatest concern. The region is one of the few points in the globe where the first and third worlds rub shoulders.

The rich, white, stable and sparsely populated "Lucky Country" stands next door to an Asian country of 200 million people (more than 10 times the population of Australia), half-bankrupt and racked by political and ethnic instability.

The reduced military standby time of 24 hours covers at first the 1,200 men based near Darwin who would form the basis of an intervention force. Their spearhead units are backed by F1-11 bombers and F-18 fighters.

For Australian military planners, the lands to their north constitute "an arc of crisis", from Indonesia through Papua New Guinea to the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia in the east. And if the worst came to the very worst, the greatest barrier would not be the country's well-trained, well-armed but only 57,000-strong military, but the vast uninhabitable deserts of Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

A desire to keep on good terms with Indonesia has therefore been a constant of Canberra's foreign policy. Those links include not only trade but defence, because Australia regularly trains units of the Indonesian army, again 10 times larger than its own. But in the case of East Timor, the anxiousness to please is mixed with guilt.

"If we simply stand by and do nothing, it will leave a scar on our reputation and our history that will never heal," Cardinal Edward Clancy, the leader of Australia's Catholics, said yesterday.

He was referring not just to the scale of the atrocities taking place on Australia's doorstep, but - indirectly - to his country's past dealings with East Timor. The Timorese fought valiantly alongside 500 Australian and allied commandos on the island in the Second World War, helping prevent it from becoming a launch pad for an invasion of Australia. For their pains they were savagely treated by the invader, before the Portuguese returned after 1945.

But when the Portuguese finally decolonised and left 30 years later, Australia recognised the subsequent annexation of East Timor by the Indonesians, even though the United Nations did not.

Hence the feeling of guilt, that Australia has let an old friend down once, and must not do so again.