Roots of intervention in E. Timor


September 14, 1999

Yielding to intense international pressure, Indonesia agreed Sunday to allow United Nations peacekeepers into East Timor, where armed gangs have killed and pillaged without bridle since residents voted for independence two weeks ago.

A remote jungle with a population only slightly larger than Baltimore's, East Timor has suddenly become grist for international summits, legislation in Congress and anguished pleas from human-rights advocates.

President Clinton has promised to limit U.S. involvement to the supporting roles of intelligence, communication and shipping troops and equipment to Timor. But Asian diplomats have said privately they expect the U.S. contribution to be substantial. Jay Hancock, The Sun's diplomatic correspondent, offers some background on this new, obscure setting for American intervention.

Why does the United Nations want to land peacekeepers on East Timor?

On Aug. 30 the East Timorese voted in a U.N.-sponsored referendum for independence from Indonesia, which has occupied the territory since 1975.

Anti-independence militias had already been looting, murdering and intimidating voters before the referendum. The violence escalated after nearly 80 percent of East Timorese voted to break with Indonesia.

Hundreds or perhaps thousands are dead. Hundreds of thousands have been driven from their homes, seeking refuge in nearby mountains or in West Timor.

Who are the militiamen? Why do they oppose East Timorese independence?

Some reports describe them as Islamic radicals preying on the predominantly Roman Catholic East Timorese. While some militia members are Muslim, Indonesia scholars say their motives probably have more to do with money and status than religion.

Not officially part of the Indonesian military forces, militiamen have received pay, uniforms and sometimes weapons from East Timor army units, analysts said. Independence for East Timor would end that.

Why hasn't the Indonesian army stopped the killing?

Top U.N. officials have charged the army with doing almost nothing to subdue the militias, and there is some evidence that it has participated directly in the mayhem.

The army occupied East Timor shortly after the region gained independence from Portugal, its colonial master for four centuries. As always when soldiers win land at the cost of lives, Indonesian generals are loath to retreat.

For the Indonesian military, "It's a blood stake: My buddy died here. My three buddies died here," says Theodore Friend, a scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, who is writing a history of Indonesia.

There are other reasons. Some army officials have also developed interests in local businesses and built other lucrative economic ties in East Timor.

Why did authorities allow the U.N. referendum in the first place?

Many Asian countries were laid low by a hemisphere-wide economic crisis last year. Indonesia may have suffered most of all. Its currency fell by more than half, its economic output shriveled, millions of its people plunged into poverty.

The chaos forced the resignation of President Suharto, who had firmly ruled since the 1960s and had ordered the East Timor occupation. B. J. Habibie, who replaced Suharto, promised nationwide democratic reforms and approved the East Timorese independence plebiscite.

While hard-liners weren't happy with the referendum, they may have been distracted by the economic crisis, analysts say, and they may have expected the vote to be closer.

Why didn't the United Nations send peacekeeping troops when the killing started?

Habibie and Gen. Wiranto, the country's military chief, argued that the Indonesian military could control the violence.

U.N. and American officials were extremely reluctant to land troops without Indonesia's OK -- basically invading the country. Aside from concerns about casualties, officials wanted to spare any new shocks to Indonesia, which is feeling its way with democracy after decades of Suharto's dictatorship. Habibie's formal invitation to peacekeepers will allow the mission to work in concert with the government instead of appearing to threaten it.

How did East Timor come to be a distinct territory? West Timor, the other half of the island, has been part of Indonesia for decades.

East Timor is a colonial artifact. Most of Indonesia was formerly the Netherlands East Indies, built and held by the Dutch until this century. East Timor, by contrast, was Portuguese, with a different heritage in language, religion and politics.

Indonesia is rived by other cultural divisions. Its dominant people, the Javanese, are only 45 percent of the population. Islam, the religion of 85 percent of Indonesians, exerts some unifying influence. But the nation of 13,700 islands and 210 million people speaks about 670 different languages.

Such diversity generates fear in Jakarta, capital of Indonesia's Javanese-dominated government, that East Timorese freedom could energize independence movements, breaking up the nation.

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