The East Timor Disaster: A Failure of Asian Security

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NAPSNet Special Report

Recommended Citation

Richard Tanter, "The East Timor Disaster: A Failure of Asian Security", NAPSNet Special Reports, September 07, 1999, https://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-special-reports/the-east-timor-disaster-a-failure-of-asian-security/

September 7, 1999

The following is the first in a series of analyses on last Friday's 
independence vote in East Timor, and the resulting violence by 
paramilitary groups.  This article is by Richard Tanter, Professor 
of International Relations at Kyoto Seika University, Japan, who has 
written widely on Indonesian politics and East Timor.  

------------------------------- 

I.  The East Timor Disaster: A Failure of Asian Security

Richard Tanter
September 7, 1999

The immediate cause of the catastrophic consequences of the UN ballot for 
independence in East Timor is undoubtedly the determination of the 
Indonesian armed forces [ABRI] to retain control of Indonesian politics 
prior to the upcoming presidential election.  But without doubt East 
Timor represents the latest - but by no means the last - failure of Asian 
regional security arrangements.

By arming the militias in East Timor and encouraging them to rampage and 
kill, ABRI is making three things completely clear.  Firstly, ABRI cares 
not a jot for the authority of President Habibie: on the matters ABRI 
considers crucial, there has been no reformasi in Indonesia.  Secondly, 
while Indonesia is the world's largest financial beggar after Russia, the 
good opinion of the rest of the world, and Indonesia's creditors in 
particular, is equally without value to ABRI: Indonesia's agreed 
international obligations do not bind its armed forces.  Thirdly, ABRI is 
using the violence of its East Timorese contras to send a message to the 
rest of Indonesia, and to the oil-rich province of Aceh in particular: 
"this is what the rest of you can expect if you continue to oppose us". 

In these circumstances, it is pointless to expect ABRI to willingly 
provide the security in East Timor it has so signally failed to provide 
before the ballot. Indonesia will not respond to UN requests for good 
behaviour.  Only one lever will countermand ABRI's virtual decapitation 
of the Habibie administration: concerted US and Japanese notice that 
Indonesia's lifeline of credit amounting over $1 billion a month from the 
IMF, World Bank and Asian Development Bank is in immediate jeopardy. 

Resumption of foreign loans must be made conditional on ABRI calling off 
the contras in East Timor, fully implementing the transition process 
agreed in the May 5th Agreement with the UN and Portugal, and agreeing to 
cooperate fully with foreign peacekeeping forces.  But even if Indonesia 
agrees in principle, where are these peacekeeping forces to come from?

There are three alternatives, each of which has serious problems: the 
United Nations; some other multilateral force; or a unilateral 
intervention.  After such a decisive vote for self-determination, a 
United Nations Peace Keeping Force for East Timor is clearly the most 
desirable outcome.  Yet the costs of an undoubtedly long-running UN 
military commitment is, as Indonesia well knows, prohibitive for the 
United Nations, which is owed more than US$1 billion by the United 
States.  Countries like Britain, Australia and New Zealand who have been 
calling for UN intervention must at the same time deal with the issue of 
financing a long-term UN force. 

A Japanese role at the UN would be crucial here: not only could Japan 
take a financial initiative, shaming the United States, but it could 
demonstrate an as yet little seen capacity for regional leadership.  More 
importantly, the Japanese government could gain domestic credit by 
offering a Japanese contingent.  While suspicion of the government's 
Peace keeping Operations Law is still widespread, the clearly urgent need 
for UN forces in East Timor would provide a good example of a genuinely 
peace-oriented foreign role for the Self Defense Forces. 

If there were a region-wide security body with both competence and 
legitimacy to intervene, a multilateral regional force could be 
effective.  Yet despite its membership of 22 nations, the ASEAN Regional 
Forum [ARF] has made no contribution to resolving the East Timor conflict 
in the past, and has little to offer now.  Unlike the more sophisticated 
and tested Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe [OSCE], 
ARF has made no attempt to deal with member states that violate basic 
international standards of human rights.  Moreover, ARF has no effective 
crisis procedures.  OSCE as a regional arrangement of nations under the 
UN Charter has a legitimacy and an institutional capacity as yet lacking 
in East and Southeast Asia international organizations. 

Only neighbouring Australia and the United States have the capacity - and 
interest - to engage in go-it-alone peacekeeping operations in East 
Timor.  Given the recent record of the US in Somalia and in NATO clothing 
in Kosovo, and the growing Northeast Asian pressures to which the US is a 
party, unilateral intervention by the US would be unhelpful.  And 
Australia faces two severe obstacles.  Firstly, as the only significant 
government to recognize Indonesia's invasion of East Timor, Australia 
presents an ambiguous face to the East Timorese pro-independence 
majority.  Secondly, any primarily Australian peacekeeping presence in 
East Timor will always be hostage to the Australian government's often 
demonstrated desire to not cross Jakarta on security issues.  Nationalist 
politicians - and there is almost no other sort in Indonesia - are 
already feeding a blinkered public opinion with tales of betrayal by the 
UN and Australia.

The hard fact is that final responsibility for the present crisis resides 
in Washington and Tokyo.  Looking at the now-disgraced Suharto 
dictatorship through Cold War glasses allowed the US to avert its eyes 
from the deaths of hundreds of thousands in East Timor and Indonesia 
proper over three decades.  Japan, together with the US, bought the oil 
and supplied the key foreign aid and investment that gave ABRI the 
freedom to ignore both law and decency. 

The Clinton and Obuchi administrations equally now have every reason to 
force General Wiranto and ABRI to accept the voice of the ballot in East 
Timor, and to secure a measure of rule of law before the incoming 
Indonesian president becomes an otherwise inevitable hostage to the 
military.  In the context of the Aceh rebellion, and an Indonesian 
economy still reeling from the currency crisis of 1998 more than any 
other country Asia, ABRI's lawlessness has disturbing implications for 
the stability and security of the region well beyond East Timor. 

 


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