The images that came into my mind as I listened to her controlled anger were television pictures of distended bodies in Kosovo. But, in contrast with the planes and tanks dispatched to the Balkans, Britain's contribution to ending "cleansing operations" by local paramilitaries backed by the Indonesian army has been a magnificent seven bobbies. They form part of a contingent of 280 unarmed civilian police advisers, part of the United Nations Mission in East Timor (Unamet) which recently began work preparing for a referendum on independence.
This is a critical moment for East Timor. On Monday, the Indonesian foreign minister, Ali Alatas, came to the capital, Dili, with a cohort of 12 cabinet ministers and the head of the armed forces, General Wiranto. Wiranto claimed that the militias were easily dealt with. Though they control much of the west of the territory, he could "disarm them in two days". Many doubt that he really intends to.
Then, on Thursday, Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General, announced that voter registration could proceed, but because of the violence he could not yet confirm the date for the referendum, or "popular consultation", already delayed to 21-22 August. It is hardly his fault. The international community is still not leaning hard enough on the Indonesians and so the UN has minimal room for manoeuvre, which makes free and fair voting unlikely. Unamet's 600 electoral workers face 23,000 Indonesian security personnel, police and troops. Without a peace-keeping mandate and adequate military back-up, the UN's representatives face yet another mission impossible.
Negotiations with the Indonesian authorities have admitted a handful of unarmed "military liaison officers" into the territory. This is better than nothing, as there is a possibility they might facilitate further peace-keeping forces. But so far the occupation forces are showing scant interest in liaising with anyone. After years in which East Timor's welfare has been sacrificed on the altar of geopolitical-political calculation, they have the upper hand.
The story began on 7 December 1975, when General Suharto annexed the former Portuguese colony two days after a visit to Jakarta by President Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger. Suharto had already slaughtered half a million "communists" in Indonesia, and he reduced the East Timorese population by almost a third by means of famine, torture and indiscriminate killing.
Four days later, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution deploring the invasion and calling for withdrawal "without delay", but Britain, the US, France and West Germany abstained. This set the trend in which the calculus of the Cold War and the rewards of harmonious relations and trade with Indonesia weighed more heavily in the scales than considerations of human rights and international law.
But the end of the Cold War has made it more difficult to pass off political expediency as an ethical approach to international relations. There is an obvious equivalence between the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and Indonesia's annexation of East Timor, and the difference in the consequences is striking. Pronouncements from the Asia department in the Foreign Office pre-Robin Cook had a ritual quality. "Not convinced of the evidence about the Hawks ... Portuguese and UN responsibility ... need to consult European partners ... sorry, I'm late for a trade delegation." Cook's ethical commitment makes the old policy of concerned inaction and furtive sales of military hardware even less easy to justify.
Moreover, the way events in East Timor have developed could have been predicted. The Nobel peace prizes have been awarded, yet there is no peace. The heroic resistance leader is released from prison, but remains under house arrest. The military steps back to make way for the elected politicians, but the men with guns still try to dictate any settlement. Bloody repression does not cease but is privatised through militias and vigilante groups. These are, of course, the stock moves in the endgame of 20th-century armed conflict. We have seen them all before. And they can be countered.
The problem is that they rarely are, and in this game pawns soon turn into queens - and queens are hard to control. Hamas, at first covertly supported by the Israelis, is a classic case. In South Africa, Inkatha, which the old regime had built up as an implausible bulwark against the ANC, carried on killing long into Nelson Mandela's presidency.
One ray of hope comes from those who have learnt the lessons of the past. The National Council for Timorese Resistance (CNRT) has benefited from South Africa's experience. Since Mandela visited its leader, Xanana Gusmao, in prison in Jakarta, the CNRT has proposed a three-year transition under UN auspices and a government of national unity. It is doing everything it can to allay the fears of the paramilitaries, both pro-integration East Timorese and Indonesians.
Peace talks under the umbrella of the Catholic Church in East Timor are reducing suspicion and countering the tactics of Kopassus, the Indonesian special forces who have been arming the paramilitaries. The Nobel prize- winner Carlos Ximenes Belo and his fellow bishop Basilio do Nascimento are playing a crucial mediating role - notwithstanding that Rome, afraid for the future of the Church in Indonesia, has been backing all horses.
Observers from a variety of non-governmental organisations are ready to fly in if problems of accreditation can be sorted out with the authorities. Unamet has a radio channel broadcasting information about the elections, and the registration of voters is under way. Maybe self-determination for East Timor will be more than words. Thank God those seven British policemen are there to show them the way.Reuse content