Subject: SMH - Op-ed: Timor poses fresh threat to Jakarta ties - J. Dunn
Date: Sat, 14 Aug 1999 09:20:10 -0400
From: "John M. Miller" <>

Wednesday, August 4, 1999


Timor poses fresh threat to Jakarta ties

The big test for our relations with Indonesia will come after East Timor's independence vote, writes James Dunn.

DURING his flight home to Australia from Indonesia, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer must have felt pleased with himself. And with good reason, for he had put the final touches to a significant and progressive shift in Australian policy on East Timor without much apparent pain.

That shift will enable us, however belatedly, to play a key role in settling adispute which has dogged our relationship with Indonesia for more than a quarter of a century.

The minister apparently had frank discussions with all parties involvedin EastTimor - and his involvement was generally welcome - though some arewondering, understandably, just how far Australia is prepared to go ifthere is aserious deterioration in the situation on the ground after theplebiscite on August 30.

The vote will allow the East Timorese to decide whether they wish to continue as part of Indonesia or become independent. Whatever happens, our once-cosy relationship with the Indonesian Government will probably be strained for some time after the vote, at least until the character of the new regime in Jakarta has been established, and the role of the armed forces (the TNI) is reshaped to meet the requirements of a democratic state.

In view of the Howard Government's unadventurous record in foreign policy initiatives elsewhere, the sensitive Timor question seemed an unlikely vehicle for the biggest shift in foreign policy in more than a generation.

That such a radical change was achieved is a personal victory for Downer who responded positively both to the drastic political changes in Indonesia, and to the growing international concern at the plight of the people in arguably the only former colony to be denied the right to choose its own destiny.

With the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) operation going relatively smoothly so far, the change does not appear to have caused any serious problems, except that the Canberra-Jakarta relationshi is not as comfortable as it was. Our greatest challenges, however, are likely to be just ahead, in the aftermath of the plebiscite.

Many expect violence once the results of the referendum have been announced; an expectation encouraged by the bellicose utterings of some militia leaders. Downer has received firm assurances from the Habibie Government that security will be maintained, whatever the outcome of the vote, but in this time of political transition, will the Indonesian Government really be able to control the situation?

It could be several months after the referendum before a new Indonesian Government under a new president is established. Undoubtedly the most cohesive force in Indonesia during this period will be the military, so its response to the plebiscite is crucial.

The political uncertainties in Jakarta may offer those opposed to independence for East Timor a last-ditch opportunity to obstruct such an outcome, by allowing, or even encouraging, the militia to launch an insurrection, in effect creating the civil war that some Indonesian generals have been predicting.

At this point, security is in the hands of Indonesian police units which were until recently part of the armed forces - their effectiveness remains to be tested. More important at this stage is the UN presence, but just what form this presence will take after the plebiscite is apparently yet to be determined.

One thing is clear, however, it will need to change its role from an election-facilitating mission to one focused on reconciliation and peacemaking.

UNAMET II will presumably need a new mandate in order to deal with post-election security problems, and that means negotiating another agreement endorsed by Indonesia, the UN and Portugal, a time-consuming process. Understandably, Downer does not like to talk about an Australian presence in East Timor, for it can raise the prospect of clashes between Australian and Indonesian forces, reminiscent of Konfrontasi in the early '60s.

But if there is a major breakdown in security in Timor, we may well find a military involvement inescapable, to help end the violence.

SUCH an involvement would emerge from strong international pressure on the Habibie Government, especially from the US and the EU countries, to allow in a UN peacekeeping force, even before the plebiscite result is endorsed by the new Indonesian Parliament.

If the Indonesian Government bows to such pressure, which in the circumstances it might do (however grudgingly in the face of strong TNI opposition), Australia, as a key player in the drama so far, will be expected to assume a leading role. We would be asked to provide troops as well as facilities in Darwin. It would be a request we could not really refuse.

Such a development would sorely test the Howard Government's change of direction, not to speak of our diplomatic skills.

Just how it would affect our relationship with Jakarta may depend on the outcome of the Indonesian elections. But even in a worst-case scenario, I do not believe that a major military clash would eventuate.

A first step towards a democratic Indonesia will surely mean restraining the TNI, and although the Indonesian military remains essentially the creature of Soeharto's Orde Baru, or "New Order", there are encouraging signs that it is slowly adjusting itself to accommodate the shift to a more democratic format.

Moreover, the generals must be aware of the constraints imposed on Indonesia by the present international environment, in which the kind of operations they have engaged in, in Timor's past, are no longer accommodated.

More importantly, Indonesia's economic recovery is critically dependent on the response of an international community which now strongly supports the right of the East Timorese to take charge of their own destiny.

James Dunn is a foreign affairs analyst.

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