The world's attention must focus on E. Timor

Facing APEC: Indonesia spurns U.N. demands, worries more about its own larger troubles.

September 10, 1999

THE Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit this weekend in New Zealand must press Indonesia to allow peacekeepers into East Timor and to keep its pledge to respect the territory's referendum for independence.

No one is proposing that an uninvited force would fight Indonesia. What APEC members do threaten is a withdrawal of world efforts to lend and invest the world's fourth-largest nation out of its recession. That is a formidable coercion.

But in refusing, Indonesia -- or its army calling the shots -- has a powerful defense: its own fragility. East Timor is of no strategic value, but the stability and prosperity of Indonesia are vital to the world.

What the world community demands first from Indonesia is a transition to a new regime reflecting its June 7 election. Then it wants East Timor's referendum for independence implemented. Above all, the world wants economic revival of Asia, including Indonesia, and tranquility in the Malacca Strait, the globe's most essential waterway.

Indonesia's army sees itself as holding together a huge and diverse archipelago, seen by others as a Javanese empire. Three rebellions flare in unimportant places, Irian Jaya (West New Guinea), East Timor and Aceh province (northern Sumatra). Only the last would be missed.

But, like Russia in the Caucasus, rulers fear the loss of one bit would undermine the edifice. And like Serbia in Kosovo, the army is terrorizing the East Timor populace through surrogate militia.

The world is rescuing Indonesia's economy in its own interest, not for charity. Yet when other Asians threaten to withhold investment, Jakarta listens. That's why the highest Indonesian official not boycotting the APEC meeting is the finance minister.

What's at stake in East Timor is the integrity of a democratic choice, and the authority of the United Nations, playing a role to which Indonesia agreed. The claim of East Timor's indispensability to Indonesia is flat wrong, and cannot justify destroying a small people or flouting the best instincts of the world community.

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