Asia Pacific Policy Center

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NAPSNet Special Report

Recommended Citation

"Asia Pacific Policy Center", NAPSNet Special Reports, September 16, 1999,

September 16, 1999

This is the latest in an ongoing series of articles on the crisis in East 
Timor.  This is an excerpt from an issue brief prepared by Douglas Paal 
for the Asia Pacific Policy Center.

A guide to all NAPSNet East Timor Special Reports is available online at:


Asia Pacific Policy Center
September 9, 1999

Issue Brief:  
APEC Meets: China/WTO and East Timor Dominate the Agenda

East Timor could prove another difficult topic for the U.S. and Chinese 
presidents if killing continues and Indonesia still refuses to permit a 
U.N. force to intervene.  China showed in Kosovo how determined it is to 
resist interference in a sovereign nation's affairs without a clear UN 
mandate.  Our judgment, however, is that an impasse is growing less 
likely every hour.  It is more likely that Indonesian army regulars will 
return calm to East Timor, and permit the UN to operate there, on a 
timetable dictated by Jakarta.

The loss of life and property in East Timor is tragic and devastating 
after a brave popular vote for independence from Indonesia.  The people 
of East Timor have been at the receiving end of injustices for too many 
centuries for the world to stand by and let it happen again.

Disarray in Indonesia's political system, divisions within the armed 
forces, and the parlous state of the economy, however, make it impossible 
to reach simple, clean decisions about how to deal with the East Timor 
crisis.  Governments are forced to work with the highly imperfect levers 
of power that exist inside Jakarta.  Foreign leaders face a Hobson's 
choice of pressing Indonesia hard for action to stem the violence in 
Timor and risking a backlash from patriotic Indonesians that could derail 
the democratization process now underway or taking a gentler course of 
persuasion that will be criticized as too weak under the circumstances.

Outside leverage on Jakarta is essentially financial, a mix of bilateral 
and multilateral aid.  If the leverage is exercised and the funds cut 
off, the results could include a collapse of democracy, military coup, 
economic depression, and /or secession by rebellious provinces.  Any and 
all of these outcomes would damage the stability and prosperity of 
Southeast Asia.  And they would be unmlikely to improve East Timor's lot.  
Foreign leaders hands are more tied than many editorialists understand.

There is reason to hope, however, that patience with Jakarta, combined 
with personal diplomacy and occasional public threats to withhold funds, 
will work in the end.  In the army, Defense Minister Wiranto needs time 
to replace mutinous troops in East Timor with forces more loyal to his 
command.  Former president Suharto left a legacy of a fractious armed 
force, unable to unite under a strong leader to challenge him.  Now, 
Wiranto has to unify the divided military, and the East Timor crisis has 
come too soon on his calendar for doing so.  Anticipation of troubles 
like this may have been part of the resentment felt by the military 
toward President Habibie for his unilateral decision to put the future of 
East Timor to an early vote. 

Politically, President Habibie increasingly looks like a figure who will 
soon fade from the scene, although apparently he does not think so.  Talk 
of a coup against him this week reflected a widespread belief that he 
bears responsibility for the mess in East Timor.  The military knows, 
however, that a coup will only abort the democratic process in the midst 
of its gestation.  It would lead to an instant cut-off of assistance and 
a downward spiralling economy.

If a coup is unthinkable, producing a new leadership is a prolonged 
process.  Even after the People's Consultative Assembly chooses a new 
leader in or around November, that leader is likely to rest on a shaky 
coalition base.  Consensus-building will take time and lead often to weak 
results.  The political elite in Indonesia seems to recognize that East 
Timor should not be allowed to derail this important, risky process, but 
in the meantime East Timor will be managed as an issue by less than fully 
legitimate leaders with a demonstrated lack of leadership skills.  They 
are stuck with this situation.

Making the best of the situation requires wily ministers who will appease 
the public's antiforeign and anti-UN mood, while undertaking the steps 
necessary to put the security of East Timor in safe hands.  We believe 
Defense Minister Wiranto and Foreign Minister Ali Alatas possess these 
skills, but need a few more days to achieve their goals.  After that, 
they will still need to address the many unanswered questions about the 
interim arrangements for East Timor's transition to independence.

One feature of the current crisis that is little understood is how well-
prepared the outside powers have been in comparison to the Indonesians.  
Unlike in Kosovo, where the U.S. finally had to take the lead from 
reluctant Europeans, Indonesia's neighbors are quite ready to help East 
Timor's transition.  Australia pre-positioned thousands of troops and 
their supplies in Darwin to be ready to jump to Timor on short notice.  
New Zealand, Thailand and others are ready to contribute peace keepers, 
reducing the demands on Washington to technical and logistical support.  
This coalition of the willing is a tribute to the responsibility of the 
region's leaders.

Prepared by Douglas H. Paal

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