Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

East-West split over Asean values

Democracy comes a poor second in the drive for development, Richard Lloyd Parry writes from Jakarta
Monsignor Carlos Belo, winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, made a momentous announcement last week. At a press conference in his home town of Dili, the Bishop of East Timor settled once and for all a burning question: despite a fluent command of English, acquired during years of study in Europe, Mgr Belo insisted that he has never heard of the word "scabby".

The bishop's ignorance has been a source of hot controversy in Indonesia for the last six weeks. The story begins in mid-October, when Mgr Belo, along with his exiled fellow countryman, Jose Ramos-Horta, was awarded the Peace Prize for his work in East Timor, the former Portuguese colony brutally annexed by Indonesia 20 years ago. They will receive the award in Oslo next week.

"In 1975 Indonesia took control of East Timor and began systematically oppressing the people," the citation read. "It has been estimated that one-third of the population lost their lives due to starvation, epidemics, war and terror... the Norwegian Nobel Committee wants to honour [Mgr Belo's] sustained and self-sacrificing contributions for a small but oppressed people."

The acute embarrassment this brought to the Indonesian government was compounded when the German magazine Der Spiegel ran an excoriating interview given by the bishop several months earlier. He was quoted as saying that there had been nine attempts on his life, and he accused the Indonesian Armed Forces of treating the East Timorese as "slaves" and "scabby dogs".

Military leaders and government supporters denounced the bishop; in Dili, 200,000 people rallied for four days in his support. Finally Mgr Belo intervened. Der Spiegel, he insisted, was guilty of "serious manipulations". He had never heard of the word "scabby". Moreover, it was wrong to say that there had been nine attempts on his life. "I categorically deny this statement," said the Bishop. "I have been threatened twice."

This caused a certain amount of puzzlement. For years, in letters to exiled Timorese groups and the United Nations, he had been openly critical of the government's methods, and explicit in his calls for a referendum to decide the territory's future. Suppose that the Indonesian military merely treats East Timorese as healthy dogs, rather than scabby ones. Suppose that only two, rather than nine, attempts have been made on the bishop's life. Was it really necessary to hold a press conference clarifying these matters? Perhaps, people in Jakarta reason, he is a remarkable stickler for detail. Or perhaps somebody has got to him.

Indonesia is not the only Asian country with Nobel problems. At a summit meeting in Jakarta yesterday, the seven leaders of Asean, the Association of South-East Asian States, met to discuss the knotty problem of Burma, a probationary member which had been expected to become a full partner next year. Burma's candidacy caused a diplomatic kerfuffle with the United States and European Union, which objected to the State Law and Order Restoration Council's continuing oppression of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese democracy leader who won the Peace Prize in 1991.

Such questions go to the heart of Asean's approach to human rights and an increasingly polarised debate between East and West. In public, south- east Asian countries like Indonesia claim to support progress towards democracy, but they also uphold a principle of non-interference in one another's internal affairs.

The theory is that, for developing economies, stability is more important than liberty, and that as countries flourish, so democratic institutions can safely take root. The problem is that, among several Asean members, the opposite seems to be happening.

In Indonesia, this has been one of the worst years for human rights in a long time. In Malaysia, in a show of Asean solidarity, a conference held by supporters of East Timorese independence was wrecked by thugs from the youth wing of the ruling party who burst in, smashing tables and screaming at its participants, several of whom were deported. Even in the Philippines, one of the region's healthiest democracies, similar tactics were employed during a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders in Manila last month.

The Asean leaders yesterday insisted that Burma will join, although they refused to say when. And they sent a warning to the EU not to allow the East Timor issue to "aggravate" relations between the two organisations. For them, this is a matter of principle, a rejection of the prescriptive democratic assumptions of the West. To others, "Asean values" may look increasingly like a mask for authoritarianism by self-interested governments.