In contrast to the destruction visited on Iraq after it annexed Kuwait, Indonesia invaded East Timor in December 1975 with impunity. Since then, and in the face of 10 UN resolutions calling for withdrawal and upholding East Timorese rights to self-determination, the Indonesian military has presided over the death by extra-judicial execution, war, famine and disease of some 200,000 East Timorese people.
Until now Indonesia has assumed that time is on its side, and that guerrillas fighting for independence could be wiped out. Encouraging some 100,000 Javanese settlers into East Timor's tiny population of about 850,000 has consolidated Indonesia's position.
The Vatican appointed Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo as apostolic administrator of Dili, the East Timorese capital, in May 1983 in the hope that he would not rock the boat. It was a miscalculation.
With growing skill the youthful Belo walked the tightrope of the East Timorese resistance's guerrilla war and Indonesian occupation. He inherited a church that provided both solace and a cultural space for the East Timorese. There was no doubt where his heart lay: in 1989 Belo wrote to the UN secretary-general calling for a UN-supervised referendum on self-determination. He warned that East Timor was "dying as a people and as a nation". There was no reply.
It took the massacre of some 200 East Timorese civilians by Indonesian forces at the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili in 1991 to help turn the tide of world opinion. The British journalist Max Stahl caught the slaughter on video and the film was broadcast worldwide to international outcry.
In 1994 the John Pilger/ David Munro documentary Death of a Nation was shown on Central TV. A response line was jammed with callers until 3am the next morning. Timor had ceased to be a small unknown island in the Indonesian archipelago. It was a popular cause.
Against this background, the UN established talks between the old colonial power, Portugal, and Indonesia. After several rounds without much progress, the parties agreed to all-inclusive talks. The first meeting took place in June 1995. Despite manipulation by the Indonesian government, the wide range of Timorese represented reached a consensus statement, in large part due to bridge-building by Bishop Belo.
International pressure and reaction to repression within Indonesia are now beginning to make inroads. Indonesia's foreign minister, Ali Alatas, has called the Timor issue "gravel in Indonesia's shoe" hobbling his country's ambitions on the world stage.
The low-level guerrilla war has a corrosive Vietnam-style effect with secret night flights taking the Indonesian war dead back to Jakarta. Although the nationalist guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmao was captured in 1992, in prison he threatens to assume the mantle of a Mandela.
The European Union adopted a Common Position on East Timor in January 1996, providing a basis for concerted action in defence of human rights and in favour of a peace process. In June the European Parliament called on all EU member states "to halt all military assistance and all arms sales to Indonesia".
These developments do not sit easily with the public position of the Foreign Office. Indonesia is an Asian tiger economy in the making, seen as a potentially vast market of 194 million people and a strategic linchpin in South-east Asia. It is a profligate purchaser of arms and concluded $201m of arms sales with Britain between 1988 and 1992. In June 1993 British Aerospace was awarded a pounds 500m contract for 24 Hawk fighter/trainers.
Those visiting the Foreign Office to advocate an arms embargo know the refrain by heart: concern about human rights ... impracticable to monitor regularly ... no evidence that Hawk aircraft are used for repression ... Indonesian government assurances
The Nobel Prize adds three things to the picture. First, it enhances Bishop Belo's credentials as a mediator, a role that the UN wants him to play. Belo's mediation in the East Timorese dialogue has already complemented UN involvement.
Second, it will strengthen the hand of Ramos Horta, the exiled leader of the East Timorese resistance, and perhaps revive the movement's peace proposal. This calls, within a two-year period, for a ceasefire, release of political prisoners and the reduction in number of Indonesian troops to 1,000. A referendum with independence as one option would be held after five years.
Finally, the prize highlights how East Timor is unfinished business from the period of decolonisation. It has turned the gravel in Mr Alatas's shoe into a very large stone indeed. There are some simple things his government can do to remove it: stop the arbitrary arrests, detention and torture of East Timorese; release political prisoners, support on- site human rights monitoring by the UN, and start negotiations with the East Timorese resistance, including Xanana Gusnao, backed by the UN.
Yet without more concerted action by the international community, Indonesia is unlikely to negotiate seriously before the Suharto regime departs the stage. External pressure is a prerequisite for progress in the faltering peace talks. The best means available, recommended by the European Parliament, is to halt arms sales to Indonesia now.
The author is director of the Catholic Institute for International Relations, 190a New North Road, London N1 7BJ, which this week publishes 'East Timor: The Continuing Betrayal'.Reuse content