Timor fighters prepare for civil war

Click to follow
AT THE heart of the East Timor crisis is the question of what to do about Indonesia's military-controlled cleansing operation, and the murderous violence that has swept the territory since last week's vote in favour of independence.

There is an imminent danger of return to civil war, with Timorses independence fighters forced to protect the population from the rampaging army and militias - in the absence of any international help.

For the outside world, there is a clear answer. Last Monday, in a referendum with a 98.6 per cent turn-out, ratified by the UN, nearly four out of five East Timorese voted for independence from Indonesia.

Among the slogans used by the United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor (Unamet) was a promise that "Unamet will stay in East Timor after the vote". In the May agreement signed at the UN, the governments of Portugal, the former colonial power, and Indonesia, requested "the secretary-general to maintain an adequate UN presence in East Timor".

This morning, in conditions of dire physical peril, the last of the Unamet staff will scramble on to helicopters, military transporter planes or naval ships in humiliating and probably permanent exit from East Timor.

There are now three options. Yesterday in Jakarta, a delegation of UN ambassadors received a firm rebuff to their proposal of the most desirable option: a multi-national peace keeping force of UN blue helmets, brought in at Indonesia's request.

More than most countries, Indonesia has a political culture based on the importance of saving face. Even assuming that President BJ Habibie still retains control over the murderous army in East Timor, which he plainly does not, it would be political suicide to consent to such a humiliating admission of domestic weakness.

Lacking an invitation from Jakarta, the UN Security Council, or a coalition of willing countries, could dispatch what is euphemistically referred to as a "peace-making force" - a multi-national army designed to suppress the violence by force of arms. The core of such a force would be provided by Australia, the foreign country closest to East Timor.

Any peace "making" operation without Indonesian consent would almost certainly meet resistance from the Indonesian military. In effect, the international community would be embarking on an invasion. "To say the least, it would be hard to persuade our publics that our soldiers should go into that kind of conflict," the Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer said yesterday. "That is a very difficult kind of conflict. That is, in a word, a war."

In Kosovo, the international community went to war in defence of a minority population, and won. By any standard of legal and moral consistency, it should be prepared to do the same thing again. But it took two years of horror in Kosovo before Nato mustered enough unity and decisiveness to act.

As the situation deteriorates in Indonesia, expect to hear the following arguments in favour of the third international option for East Timor: doing nothing.

With a population of 220 million, Indonesia is the world's fourth most populous country, an archipelago straddling the most strategically important waterways in the world. In 1975, the international community turned a blind eye to Indonesia's invasion of East Timor because it feared upsetting a pro-western dictatorship on which it relied to provide a bulwark against instability. Now, the argument will go, the risks are greater.

In the aftermath of its first democratic election Indonesia is uncertainly poised on the verge of real reform. The woman upon whom most hopes are placed, Megwati Sukarnoputri, whose party won more votes than any other in the June election, is opposed on principle to the partition of East Timor, although she has maintained so far that she will respect the outcome of the referendum.

Yesterday in Jakarta, western diplomats were making the case that militarily intervention in East Timor - or even punitive economic sanctions - could galvanise a nationalist backlash and anti-western reaction in Indonesia and jeopardise the democratic gains of the past few months.

East Timor could plunge back into civil war with only the guerrillas of Falintil to defend them against the Indonesian army.

Throughout the build-up to the referendum, and its violent aftermath, Falintil has exercised exemplary restraint and discipline, despite intense pressure to react from its own people.