Subject: AWSJ: Column: Asean Failing To Live Up To E.Timor Challenge

Asian Wall Street Journal February 24, 2000

AWSJ: Column: Asean Failing To Live Up To E.Timor Challenge


(Editor's Note: This is an opinion piece from Thursday's Asian Wall Street Journal. Wain is a Journal reporter.)

HONG KONG -- When East Timor exploded last September, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations took cover. Members watched from their bunkers as troops, primarily from outside the region, promptly answered a call by the United Nations to restore order in what was then an Indonesian province.

Now that East Timor is moving toward independence under U.N. tutelage, Asean has another chance to take charge of peace and security in its corner of the globe. Again, it is in danger of failing the challenge.

Nobody expected the 10 countries to make a commitment to the U.N. Transitional Administration in East Timor, which took over last October, under an Asean banner. Nobody expected them to provide most of the funding for Untaet, whose task in building a ministate from scratch will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and last several years.

Reasonably, though, they might have given generously to Untaet's peacekeeping mission, especially since some of them criticized the presence of outsiders in the initial phase. Their feeling back then was that one of them, not Australia, should have been directing the rescue effort.

But as the peacekeepers began deploying this month, it became apparent that Asean is still missing in action. Only four Southeast Asian countries are taking part and only three of them are sending soldiers. Their combined troop contribution is just one-fifth of the total.

Although one of the world's most successful regional organizations, Asean has suffered since the economic crisis ripped through East Asia in 1997. Asean's rapid expansion, to include socialist Vietnam and Laos and military-run Myanmar, has undermined its cohesion and tarnished its reputation.

Part of the problem is that, while Asean engages in high-minded rhetoric, its members sometimes seem to care little for each other when the chips are down. In the case of East Timor, which voted for independence from Indonesia in late August, Asean lacked the mechanism and political will to prepare for an unfolding disaster in its midst.

Instead, the Malaysians and a few Thais chose to join Jakarta and snipe at the Australians for supposedly being overly eager to get involved. As it was, the international force arrived too late to prevent hundreds of East Timorese from being killed by local militias and their Indonesian military backers. Most survivors were driven from their homes, more than 200,000 of them across the border into West Timor, while the vast majority of buildings in the territory were torched.

For the most part, the transition from peace enforcement to peacemaking, expected to be completed by the end of this month, simply involves "rehatting." Almost 70% of the original force are replacing their regular gear with U.N. blue berets.

Altogether, 23 countries are contributing about 8,500 troops. Only four, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Portugal and Chile, are new to the lineup. The main contributors from outside Southeast Asia are Australia, with about 1,700, Portugal 880, New Zealand 760, Pakistan 750, Jordan 700, Bangladesh 520 and South Korea 450.

Thailand and the Philippines, perhaps not coincidentally the two most democratic Asean members and the ones favoring franker discourse within the grouping, have saved some of Asean's face. Bangkok is sending 900 soldiers, while Manila is dispatching 820 and providing the commanding officer. The only other Asean country supplying troops is Singapore, with just 20.

The most conspicuous absentee is chief critic Malaysia. On the basis of its world-wide peacekeeping record since 1960, Kuala Lumpur lobbied hard to lead the current operation in East Timor, backed by 1,500 to 1,700 troops.

What went wrong? Effectively, Malaysia's ambitions were frustrated by the bellicose diplomacy of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Answering accusations that the Malaysians were quick to support fellow Muslims far afield in Kosovo but slow to aid neighborhood Catholics, he made a series of comments distorting the history of East Timor's struggle for freedom and showing indifference to the suffering of its people.

In retaliation, East Timor's foreign minister-designate, Jose Ramos-Horta, threatened non-cooperation with a Malaysian commander. Mr. Ramos-Horta claimed later that the U.N. actually had decided in favor of Malaysian leadership. "We fought on different fronts to reverse that decision and we succeeded, and we are very pleased that the command is in the hands now of the Philippines," he said.

The bottom line is that, feeling unwelcome, Malaysia withdrew the offer of troops, though it did send 20 military observers and 21 police officers, with more police to follow. Thailand and the Philippines also sent military observers and police.

This sort of pettiness belongs to the past and reflects badly on all sides. Kuala Lumpur has been forced to deny that it is "sulking" over Manila getting the nod.

The wrangling is also shortsighted, since Asean and East Timor are "condemned by geography to coexist," as Mr. Ramos-Horta once put it. East Timor needs all the help it can get, now and perhaps forever. It is already seeking some form of observer status in Asean this year, with the aim of joining soon after Dili has assumed sovereignty from the U.N.

Fortunately, common sense is starting to prevail. On a recent swing through six Asian countries, East Timorese leader "Xanana" Gusmao extended an olive branch to the Malaysians by saying he will formally propose that the U.N. rotate command of the peacekeeping force among Asean countries.

Even if the arrangement proves impractical, the gesture has been welcomed by Malaysia, which is now responding enthusiastically to requests for aid. East Timor has asked for, among other things, military engineers and medical specialists to help rebuild schools and bridges and treat sick East Timorese.

Kuala Lumpur has offered expertise in oil and gas production, civil service training and human resource development. Officials have indicated the police contingent assigned to East Timor will more than double to 54, with the number likely to rise further. It would go a long way if Malaysia managed to send troops as well.

The rest of Asean, particularly wealthy Singapore, should also try to do more by way of reconstruction, if not peacekeeping. Only Thailand and the Philippines are pulling their weight. The others should remember that, no matter how poor they are, they're well off compared with their prospective 11th member.

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