Nobel prize hits East Timor nerve

Award offers both hope and danger
"We are astounded. We remain completely nonplussed. We remain at a loss," said the Indonesian foreign minister, Ali Alatas. "It's a wrong choice, a misguided choice, an ill-informed choice ... This is the trouble with East Timor - the moment something remotely negative happens it is immediately blown up, it is immediately exploited abroad ... it can be very, very frustrating."

It seems unbelievable, but, on the question of East Timor, the Indonesian government feels sorry for itself. Since it invaded the former Portuguese col-ony in 1975, around 200,000 people have died as a result of famine, disease and bullets.

Torture, murder and detention without trial of opponents of the occupation are widespread. Despite resolutions in the United Nations which still regards Portugal as the administering power, Mr Alatas and President Suharto consistently reject the possibility of a referendum to decide the territory's future. But they still feel hard done by. Today, with the presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize to the East Timorese advocates, Bishop Carlos Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta, they feel harder done by than ever.

In this, according to foreign diplomats, lies both a danger and perhaps an opportunity. Opinion is divided in Jakarta on whether the Nobel award will make peace in East Timor less likely, by driving the government into a corner, or whether it could open the way to resolution of the 21-year old conflict.

However irrational, there are reasons for the self-pity. Accounts of East Timor give the impression of Indonesia as a monolithically evil force, wholly indifferent to world opinion. But, for all its brutality, it is not a Burma or a Nigeria. In other areas, President Suharto's foreign policy has been successful, even enlightened.

In Third World capitals, Indonesia is respected as a pioneer leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. Among the members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), President Suharto is regarded as an unofficial figurehead. Indonesia's troops participated in the UN peace-keeping force in Cambodia, and its diplomats played an important role in the successful peace negotiations between the Philippines government and the Muslim insurgency in Mindanao.

But internationally, recognition of these quiet achievements is drowned out by out- rage over Indonesia's human rights record. For large sections of the educated world, the suppression of East Timor is the only thing they know about Indonesia. The image of a butcher nation undoubtedly deters in- ternational aid and investment.

The subject bedevils diplomatic talks with the West - the Asean countries, prompted by Indonesia, recently put out a statement lamenting its "irritant" effect on relations with the European Union. The regime feels let down by what it sees as a hypocritical approach to East Timor by Western governments. In 1975, Britain, France and the US voted for UN resolutions condemning the invasion, but ever since they have stepped up their arms trade with Jakarta.

Later this month, the seventh in a series of talks between Indonesia and Portugal will take place under the auspices of the UN Secretary General. The previous meetings have got no-where; the pessimistic view of the Nobel Peace Prize award is that it will further humiliate and enrage the Indonesians, destroying the delicate face-saving manoeuvres essential to a lasting settlement. To complicate things further, the subject of Indonesia has been a hot potato in Washington since allegations that the Clinton campaign accepted questionable donations from Indonesian companies.

But some diplomats in Jakarta see positive signs. Several discreet initiatives to grant the Timorese a measure of autonomy have been proposed recently, as has the idea of medi- ation by a third country. President Bill Clinton has already indicated Asia is one of the pri- orities of his second term foreign policy; there is speculation the administration may distract Congressional attention from the campaign donations with an aggressive attempt to broker a form of peace.

There is one major obstacle: President Suharto himself, who has accepted none of these ideas. Like much else in Indo-nesia, the problem may have to wait until after the 77-year-old President has gone. "It's been going on now for 21 years, longer than anyone expected," says one foreign diplomat. "Something has to give sooner or later."

Analysis, page 14