East Timor in turmoil: Why doesn't anyone stop it?

What on earth is going on in East Timor?

Terrorist militias, opposed to East Timor's independence from Indonesia, are creating huge fear across large areas of the western part of the territory. Since last Monday, when 78.5 per cent of East Timorese voted for independence in a UN-organised ballot, 150,000 people have been driven from their homes, hundreds of thousands more terrorised, and unknown numbers massacred.

Why isn't anything being done to stop it?

Under the agreement brokered by the UN, security during the referendum and the transition to independence is entirely in the hands of the Indonesian police. From the very beginning, the police and army have passively tolerated and actively directed the militia violence. The UN and foreign governments have repeatedly complained to the Indonesian government, to no avail.

Why hasn't the Indonesian government acted?

Since the fall of president Suharto, the weak government of President B J Habibie and the armed forces - the most powerful institution in Indonesia - have been deeply divided.

Why can't the UN step in?

UN Assistance Mission in East Timor has no say on security. Its police and military liaison officers are unarmed, and can act only as advisers.

What does the military hope to gain from all this?

The armed forces have been humiliated since the fall of president Suharto, as human rights abuses under his regime have been made public. The "loss" of East Timor would be the final blow. Thousands of Indonesian soldiers died during the 1975 invasion and the 24-year civil war against Falintil guerrillas.

What happens next?

Nobody knows. Some believe that this latest violence is the last spasm of Indonesian control, an irrational and vengeful leave-taking that will soon burn itself out. Others discern the same strategy used to justify the Indonesian invasion in 1975. After forcing the UN to evacuate, the Indonesian military reinvades East Timor on the pretext of "restoring order". It may also hope to scupper the pro-independence vote by partitioning the western areas, adjoining the Indonesian border, where support for Jakarta has always been strongest.

What can the rest of the world do?

Armed UN peacekeepers appear to be the only solution. But building up an international consensus is likely to take weeks at least. Non-UN soldiers could be sent at short notice from Australia and New Zealand but this would be bitterly resisted by Jakarta.

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