via The Portland Oregonian, editorials page
Sunday May 9, 1999
Appearing ready to end 24 years of occupation and brutal repression, Indonesia signed an accord at the United Nations on Wednesday, setting out the framework to grant the people of East Timor an August vote on independence. Sadly, elements of the military and its ruthless civilian militia are working to undermine a peaceful outcome.
With the majority of Americans focused on the conflict in Yugoslavia, the development of another foreign crisis is bound to encounter blank stares.
But globalization of strategic and economic interests has made us all interdependent in ways that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. U.S. corporations that have operations in Indonesia include Nike, Freeport McMoRan and Phillips Petroleum. What happens in Asia affects these shores more than at any time since World War II.
Which brings us back to Indonesia, the archipelago island nation stretching between Australia and Southeast Asia, the largest Muslim nation in the world. With 213 million people, it's the fourth most populated after China, India and the United States.
In the aftermath of Suharto's fall last year, the East Timorese, whose takeover by Indonesia was never recognized by the United Nations, have continued to seek an end to the violent repression by the Indonesian military. And after years of saying it would never release East Timor, Indonesia, under President B.J. Habibie, announced in January that the territory would be allowed to vote on independence in August.
Unfortunately, the militias, which spent the past 24 years collaborating with the military to keep the civilian population under strict control through violence and intimidation, weren't ready for the about-face in policy. Over the past 24 years, 200,000 East Timorese have been killed or have disappeared. Accustomed to running the show, the militias stepped up their campaign of terror after Habibie's announcement. Clearly, if elections are to mean anything in East Timor, the militias will have to be disarmed and the military reined in.
The U.N. agreement is an important step. At least 600 U.N. observers will be stationed in East Timor to oversee the elections, and Secretary General Kofi Annan said that Indonesia will be held responsible for the activity of the militias as well as the military.
But other persuasive agents should be brought to bear. Japan, Indonesia's largest trading partner, and the United States, its second trading partner, have a great deal of influence over Indonesia's economic recovery, as does the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Australia, long quiet on Indonesian affairs, has added its voice to calls for free elections for its northern neighbor. U.S. military leaders with ties to the Indonesian military should make it clear that the elections are expected to go forward without interference.
Indonesia has been governed by dictators since the colonial powers left. But their time is over, too. It's time for the people to choose.