other and perhaps more important question, however, is whether intervention
is likely to be effective at stopping the slaughter and creating
a human-rights paradise. It seems to me much more difficult to construct
a pragmatic case for intervention than a theoretical case.
some Americans, of course, the fact that East Timor is an island
on the other side of the world whose troubles few Americans understand
(except that they don't seem to affect national security much) is
reason enough to be dubious about sending or even providing logistical
and financial support for "peacekeeping'' troops. But lack
of knowledge or compelling interest might be the weakest argument
against intervention. The more you understand about recent Timorese
and Indonesian history the less likely it seems that foreign intervention
is likely to accomplish much.
Renting the old Mel Gibson movie "The Year of Living Dangerously''
offers a taste of Indonesian atmosphere, but much has happened since
1965, when that film was set. Sukarno was replaced by Suharto in
the 1965 coup, and after a short period of hope revealed himself
as a brutal autocrat with a special gift for using government power
to enrich his family.
In 1975, Portugal granted independence to the island of Timor, which
it had colonized. Indonesia (which had gained independence from
the Dutch in 1947) invaded East Timor and took over brutally with
the tacit blessing of the United States, which was worried about
a Marxist insurgency and possible Cold War implications. Since then
some 200,000 Timorese have been killed, with the most brutal killing
coming at the hands of the Indonesian military and police, along
with anti-secessionist or "integrationist'' militias whom most
observers believe are backed and subsidized by the Indonesian military.
CLAMOR FOR INTERVENTION
well, not quite nobody, some mainly leftist human-rights
advocates clamored with little impact called for intervention
or humanitarian rescue missions. The United States wanted to remain
on good terms with Indonesia (the fourth most populous country in
the world at 209 million, with oil reserves and a strategic position
along heavily traveled sea lanes). Diplomats feared that siding
with the Timorese would encourage other parts of Indonesia
some 14,000 islands sprawling across three time zones to
think about secession, and the attitude was that breaking up existing
nation-states (whether they made demographic sense or not) was just
about the most terrible thing that could ever happen.
The collapse of Indonesia's currency last year precipitated the
Asian economic crisis and the resignation of Suharto. The new president,
B.J. Habibie, announced national elections for this November and
a separate referendum (between independence and greater autonomy
within Indonesia) for East Timor, to be supervised by the United
When independence got a 78 percent majority, anti-independence militias
stepped up the violence that has received such intense attention
in recent weeks. Now President Clinton has warned the Indonesian
government that if it can't control the violence it should invite
an international force under the United Nations to restore something
CONTROLS THE MILITIAS?
While the militias have often acted
at the behest of the Indonesian government, however, there are serious
questions as to whether the Indonesian military or government can
control them or for that matter whether the civilian government
controls the official Indonesian military. But most authorities
agree that there are 20,000 to 30,000 armed militia fighters in
East Timor. There is some evidence the militias are starting to
fight among themselves. In addition there are 2,000 highly trained
Kopassus troops, 15,000 Indonesian army forces and 8,000 police.
All of these forces are familiar with the challenging terrain East Timor is mountainous, with few roads and some peaks as high
as 9,700 feet as the 7,000 UN forces now contemplated would not
be. In addition to the militias, any UN force would probably face
harassment by rogue elements of the regular army.
Throw in the additional complication that the country most eager
to send troops and now designated as the lead country for
a UN occupation force is Australia, precisely the country,
for various historic and proximity reasons, most likely to inspire
opposition within Indonesia. And sure enough, there were demonstrations
in Djakarta against an Australian-led intervention. The Indonesian
government later said it would be just Jim-dandy with them if Australian
troops came in and cleaned up the Timorese mess, but one has to
wonder how sincere that sentiment was. And one has to wonder whether
the Indonesian government will be able to control anti-Australian
sentiment and possible anti-Australian violence.
YUGOSLAVIA OF ASIA?
Ted Carpenter, Cato
Institute's defense and international relations analyst, views
Indonesia as the "Yugoslavia of Asia'' in the sense that it
is a nation-state cobbled together by the accidents of colonial
history rather than national or ethnic coherence. Looking at the
map you could make a case for it being one country or six countries.
East Timor is an issue because it happened to be colonized by Portugal
whereas the rest of the country was ruled by the Dutch. Active and
armed secessionist movements exist in the oil-rich provinces of
Aceh and Irian Jaya.
Any decent person would hope that all these problems (we haven't
even touched on the ethnic and religious issues) could be sorted
out and settled peacefully. But most realists doubt it. It will
take years, and sadly a good deal of blood is likely to be shed
in the process.
To imagine that a force of international "peacekeepers'' would
be very helpful able to do much more than protect a few cities,
enforce an occasional temporary cease-fire, and stand guard over
an isolated UN compound is even less realistic than hoping no
more Indonesian blood will be shed. Indeed, such a force could delay
a genuine resolution by becoming both a participant and a puppet
in struggles that the Indonesian people themselves should handle.
The notion that a well-meaning military
force backed by mandates from "nation-builders'' who maintain
offices in New York and float from international conference to international
conference can create a harmonious utopia in parts of the world
riven by ethnic conflict is one of the more pernicious illusions
driving interventionist policy. You can see the dreaminess in Kosovo,
just as you can see it in the earlier international occupation of
The interventions are usually predicated on the idea that the most
desirable outcome is a multiethnic state living in harmony through
wise policies enforced by outside powers. That's the dream, familiar
to anybody who has ever gone to college in the United States or
any part of the Western world. Sending bombs, missiles and troops
to rip apart some "backward'' region of the world is always
justified by complaints about ethnic hostility, ethnic cleansing
or atavistic attitudes. The nation to be "built'' along enlightened
lines is envisioned as a modern, well-managed welfare state with
a huge (but professional) bureaucracy, a labyrinth of laws and directives,
a veritable paradise of progressive micro-management ensuring harmony
and well being.
Or you could be more cynical and see the nation-builders as frustrated
theorists unable to apply their clean theories in their home countries
because the politics are too messy and democratic opposition too
robust. So they pick some putatively backward country as a living
laboratory for their ivory-tower theories.
But you can't start with a clean slate in those countries. No matter
how ignorant the insulated theorists are of local conditions, they
all have histories often remembered and rehearsed to a fault.
So the result, despite the pretensions of the international bureaucrats
to be able to build a happy, peaceful, ethnically diverse and integrated
society, is usually de facto partition along ethnic lines, as has
happened in Bosnia and is happening in Kosovo.
We needed international intervention to accomplish this?
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