Subject: IPS: Asean's Commitment to New Nation Tested

Also: Timorese debate ASEAN, South Pacific Forum memberships

Inter Press Service January 31, 2000, Monday Asean's Commitment To New Nation Tested EAST TIMOR: ASEAN'S COMMITMENT TO NEW NATION TESTED Analysis by Sonny Inbaraj

DILI, East Timor, Jan. 31

Previously hostile toward East Timor, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) now faces a serious test this week, in its commitment to the newest nation state in the region.

East Timor's independence leader Xanana Gusmao and Nobel Peace Laureate Jose Ramos-Horta are on a whirlwind eight-day tour of ASEAN -- due to set foot in Thailand tomorrow before moving on to Malaysia and the Philippines.

For East Timor, membership in the 10-country ASEAN would help cement the new nation state's credentials with the region as an entity independent from Indonesia.

It will also carry some modest development benefits if plans for Southeast Asia-wide economic cooperation gain real momentum.

But the challenges ahead for Gusmao and Ramos-Horta, in gaining ASEAN support, are truly daunting.

While the Western world supported the cause of self-determination of the East Timorese people after Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975, ASEAN member turned their backs on East Timor in the name of regional solidarity with Indonesia.

Human rights groups estimate that more than 200,000 East Timorese, a third of the population, died as a result of the invasion.

When Indonesian military-supported militias terrorized East Timor after the Aug. 30 U.N.-supported independence referendum, killing an untold number and sending hundreds of thousands of people to neighboring West Timor, ASEAN was criticised by the international community for failing to act to resolve a conflict in its own backyard.

Security analysts hit out at the 22-member ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), saying it made no contribution to resolving the East Timor conflict in the past, and had little to offer now.

"Unlike the more sophisticated and tested Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, ARF has made no attempt to deal with member states that violate basic international standards of human rights," said Richard Tanter, professor of international relations at Japan's Kyoto Seika University.

But Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong argues otherwise. "It (East Timor) was not a problem created by ASEAN, it was and is an international problem that remains an issue with the United Nations. It never started off as an Asean problem," he told reporters in November.

Though the diplomatic niceties will, without doubt, be shown toward East Timor's leaders in their regional swing, past events, however, cannot be undone.

In May 1994, then Philippine President Fidel Ramos, bowing to pressure from Jakarta, tried to ban an international conference on East Timor in Manila and blacklisted Ramos-Horta.

Later that year, Ramos-Horta was made persona non grata in Thailand and banned from entering Bangkok in 1995 to teach at a diplomacy training program in prestigious Thammasat University.

In 1996, the Mahathir government said the Nobel Peace Laureate was not welcome in Kuala Lumpur to open an East Timor conference. That conference was later violently disrupted by a youth group associated with the government and the Malaysian participants arrested by police.

In 1997, Ramos-Horta was again refused entry into Manila by Philippine immigration. He was to have given a guest lecture at the University of the Philippines.

But now, it seems Thailand and Philippines have broken ranks with the rest of ASEAN in the rebuilding of a devastated East Timor.

The Thais were the first Asian forces in the Australian-led International Force for East Timor (Interfet) sent on Sept. 20 to quell the militia violence in the territory. A Thai major-general was deputy Interfet commander.

Thai deputy foreign minister Sukhumbhand Paribatra defended Thailand's active role in restoring peace in East Timor. When criticised in the region as being too close to the Australians, he said the country can act on its own without having to do so under ASEAN.

"We can do many things under our own banner. It is not necessary to be under the ASEAN banner to help restore peace in East Timor. We are a good U.N. member and a good neighbor of Indonesia," he was quoted as saying in the Bangkok press in October.

The Philippines on the other hand has contributed medical and logistics personnel to Interfet, rather than ground troops.

In the long run, the Philippines might emerge as a natural ally of East Timor -- being the only other predominantly Catholic nation in the region.

Also, the United Nations has named a Filipino general, Lieutenant General Jaime Delos Santos, to command a full-fledged U.N. peacekeeping force, which takes over from Interfet tomorrow.

In Bangkok, Gusmao and Ramos-Horta are scheduled to meet Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan and Thai army chief General Surayud Chulanonda.

Thailand would be pushing for East Timor to be given observer status in ASEAN, and later full membership in the regional grouping once it becomes an independent state.

A Thai NGO known as Thailand's Relief Project for Timor, with former prime minister Anand Panyarachun as chairman, has been formed with prominent politicians, academics and journalists as members. The NGO plans to work with local Timorese groups and will be using the visit by the two East Timorese leaders to raise funds.

While Bangkok's Saranom Palace was more forthcoming with the East Timorese leaders' visit, Kuala Lumpur's Wisma Putra, however, has been tight-lipped.

It is still uncertain whether Gusmao will meet Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, with Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar saying there was no agenda for his visit. No mention was made of Ramos-Horta.

The Mahathir government is still seething with anger after the East Timorese leadership effectively vetoed a proposal by Malaysia to take command of the U.N.-sanctioned peacekeeping force. Ramos-Horta warned of civil disobedience, in East Timor, if Malaysia were given command of the U.N. force.

Mahathir, who often lectures western countries for their "hypocrisy and double standards," has been a staunch defender of Indonesian behavior in East Timor.

Asked in Singapore to explain his opposition to East Timor's independence in light of his outspoken support for the right of Kosovo, which has a Muslim majority, to break away from Serbia, Mahathir said Indonesia was entitled to integrate the territory.

"The difference between East Timor and Kosovo is that East Timor has been with Indonesia for 25 years, and during that time there were no massacres," Mahathir said. "The Indonesians were not behaving like Serbs."

Now, Malaysia could throw the spanner in the works by opposing observer status in ASEAN for East Timor, especially since Ramos-Horta is also known to be a supporter of Mahathir's arch enemy -- jailed former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.

--- The Nation, Bangkok, Feb 2, 2000

East Timor careful over policy direction

EAST Timorese leaders said yesterday their country should join both Asean and the South Pacific Forum as this would best serve the country's strategic interests and future foreign policy direction.

They added, however, that preliminary views on the issue would be known within the next few months after the nation hosts a series of broad-based seminars to weigh the pros and cons of the options.

Speaking during a meeting with the Bangkok-based regional human rights group, Forum Asia, East Timorese leaders Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos Horta admitted they had adopted a go-slow policy over the membership issue since it would affect the country's foreign-policy and strategic interests.

"For us this is a black and white issue," said Ramos Horta who is East Timor's de-facto Foreign Minister.

"If joining Asean means excluding us from the South Pacific Forum, then we have to think twice. And if joining the South Pacific Forum means excluding us from Asean, then we have to think twice," said Ramos Horta, pointing out that East Timor had the geographical advantage of being close to South Pacific countries but was also strategically tied to the Asean countries which were farther away.

Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975 and annexed it the following year. The United Nations did not recognise the annexation.

Ramos Horta said he would seek the views of members of the two organisations. He added that a series of broad-based seminars involving East Timorese people, academics and representatives of the countries concerned would be held in and outside East Timor in the next few months to gauge the implications of joining Asean.

"We hope to arrive at a preliminary view on the question then," Ramos Horta said.

Gusmao and Ramos Horta arrived here yesterday for their first Asean tour since the country gained independence from Indonesia in a United Nations-sponsored referendum last August.

They both laughed when asked about their previously different views on joining Asean. But Gusmao chose to have Ramos Horta speak on his behalf.

Ramos Horta, who was earlier against East Timor becoming a member of Asean, said he was personally embarrassed by his prior views against Asean having a major role in the peace and reconstruction process in East Timor.

"Thailand and Philippines have shown to us that we can work closely with Asean," he said referring to both countries' contribution of troops to the UN contingent which has been restoring peace and order since last August.

Gusmao also spoke passionately about Thailand's role in East Timor. "Thai food, rice and clothes sent to us is the reflection of true friends," he said.

Gusmao specifically thanked the Thai troops, saying their contribution helped prevent genocide. Besides, he said, they had also been very generous and helpful to the people,

"Even East Timorese now sing Thai songs," he said.

Both leaders also expressed the hope that East Timor would be able to fully function as an independent state soon. According to Gusmao, UN work has progressed well considering the complexity of the problem facing the new state.

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