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The road to hell is paved with good intentions

Will Deighton explains why the pressure for international intervention in East Timor was destined to end in bloodshed

When Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas finally agreed to the posting of an international force in East Timor in September, it was seen as a positive breakthrough for Western intervention in the conflict. The claim for East Timorese independence has been advanced by the radicals of the Fretilin movement throughout the period of Indonesian rule over this former Portuguese colony. But it is only in the past four years, since European governments, along with Australia and New Zealand, have adopted the cause of East Timor, that it has become a major international issue.

Yet the results of the process of intervention have been catastrophic.

Throughout the Cold War, all of the Western allies backed the Indonesian regime of President Suharto, regardless of what it did to its opponents at home or in East Timor. Suharto's 34-year dictatorship began in a bloody coup in 1965 when, with full American support, the Indonesian military overthrew the radical nationalist President Sukarno and crushed the Indonesian Communist Party. Half a million people died. Suharto's Indonesia proved a valuable ally of the USA in a volatile region, where the West had suffered setbacks in China, Korea and Vietnam. A grateful Anglo-American elite fêted Suharto's military regime with money and guns. British arms sales have included Rapier air defence systems, Navy frigates - and in 1993 £500 million worth of contracts for 24 Hawk jets.

In more recent times, the major pressure for a reconsideration of policy towards Indonesia has come from the burgeoning army of international non-governmental organisations (NGOs). These pressure groups are generally funded by Western governments or through contributions, and have a remit to give aid or to act as advocates for victims of repression. Campaigns like Amnesty International, the World Development Movement and the Campaign Against the Arms Trade adopted the cause of the East Timorese people through humanitarian intentions. But in demanding more international intervention in East Timor, they set in motion a process where bloodshed became inevitable.

The NGOs have come to the fore as a motor of military and political intervention in the third world since the end of the Cold War. The impact of the NGOs upon localised conflicts (such as exist in most parts of the world) has tended to internationalise them. In the process such conflicts are made uncontainable. Intervention transforms the protagonists, through bringing them into contact with well-connected NGOs which provide a line to the world's media and governments. Secessionist movements then tend to adopt a strategy of internationalising regional conflicts, so that their territorial and political demands are made primarily to the outside world. Since everybody is now playing to the global gallery, and no party any longer has an interest in reaching an internal agreement, the conflicts are prolonged and intensified.

In the case of East Timor the internationalisation of the claim for independence was formalised when the Norwegian Nobel Committee decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Carlos Belo and José Ramos-Horta 'for their work towards a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in East Timor' in October 1996. The Nobel Committee's award was a calculated snub to the West's allies in the Indonesian government. The impact upon the East Timorese was entirely predictable: internationalising the conflict through the NGOs became the obvious strategy. As New Zealand campaigner Phil Ferguson explains: 'Nowhere is the demand for intervention stronger than among supporters of East Timorese independence. From demanding "Hands Off" by not only the Indonesians but also the Western powers, they have shifted to demanding "Hands On".'

In Britain, charities and campaigns highlighted the case of East Timor in a series of high-level protests against the Conservative government's arms sales to Indonesia. Reluctant to jeopardise Britain's £32 billion arms trade, the Labour opposition at first refused to support an export ban. But after a jury refused to convict anti-arms trade protesters who damaged Hawk jets destined for Indonesia in 1996, Labour jumped on the bandwagon denouncing the Tories' arms sales to Indonesia.

On coming to office in 1997, Labour foreign secretary Robin Cook promised an 'ethical' foreign policy. Widely interpreted as meaning an end to arms sales to repressive regimes, Cook's humanitarian foreign policy was a commitment that came back to haunt him. Cook was pilloried for visiting Indonesia and for issuing them with invitations to visit British arms fairs. He was further embarrassed in September, with revelations that £130 million of public money has been used in the past year alone to help the Indonesian government buy Hawk fighters from Britain. Against its instincts, the Labour government has been pushed towards a position of active opposition to the Indonesian regime.

The removal of Suharto following mass protests in Jakarta in May 1998 was the signal for all of Indonesia's former allies to start pushing Indonesia over East Timor. Gordon Brown made it clear that 'the world is now watching Indonesia', while Australia's foreign minister Alexander Downer said 'this is a wonderful opportunity for there to be progress made on the question of East Timor'. (Of course, both Britain and Australia had given training and advice to Indonesian police and troops operating in East Timor right up until last year.)

International intervention came with the European Union's mission to East Timor in June 1998 under British ambassador Robin Christopher, who told the crowds: 'Your voice has been heard. We all have taken your messages away with us. We congratulate this good and disciplined demonstration. We want the future of East Timor to be peaceful.' When Indonesian intelligence officers accompanying the mission opened fire, Christopher called the mission to a halt and left the crowds to the pro-Indonesian militias.

The United Nations mission in Dili's independence referendum paid scant regard to the destabilising effect it would have on the rest of Indonesia. The naivety of the Habibie regime in thinking that the referendum in August would end in anything but a mandate for independence was matched only by the UN's refusal to understand that the Indonesian military would be unable to accept the results. Once again the 'international community' marched civilian protesters directly into the path of machine-gun fire. The overwhelming result in favour of independence was belied by a complete lack of organisation on the ground to resist the pro-Jakarta militias, as Fretilin waited for the international community to come to the rescue.

For the United Nations an ignominious retreat, first into and then out of its Dili compound, was a tactical defeat; but it also proved a propagandistic windfall for the pro-interventionists. The scenes made it impossible for America and Britain to resist the demand for military intervention. The East Timorese had been used as a stage army to advance the cause of humanitarian intervention in Indonesia.

Phil Ferguson makes the point that 'Australia and New Zealand, which would be likely to play major roles in such an intervention, have substantial vested interests in the region and a growing array of "peacekeeping" missions in the Asia-Pacific area and other parts of the world'. Disquiet was soon evident within Indonesia over the UN's insistence that Australia - a mostly white nation from the old colonial school, widely mistrusted in Asia - should lead the force in East Timor.

The impact of deligitimating the Indonesian state through East Timor will be profound. The future of a nation of 200 million is now in question. Moreover, the UN, NGOs and Western governments have created a situation where many other minorities throughout Asia can look to advance their cause through appealing to the international community - with predictably destabilising results. As more developing nations are undermined, the likely result is a further extension of Western supervision under the auspices of the United Nations. The UN protectorate roadshow moves on from Bosnia and Kosovo to East Timor and beyond.

The sun rises over the United Nations headquarters in New York six hours before dawn at the International Tribunal of Human Rights at The Hague. An hour later the first morning patrols of the Bosnian protectorate are made, and the mission in Kosovo starts another day. An hour after that, the Kurdish 'safe havens' and the United Nations mission in Baghdad see the first shafts of sunlight, and by noon in the Middle East the United Nations' latest possession in East Timor greets a new day. By mid-afternoon in Dili it is dawn in the UN mission in Guatemala, just an hour before the sun rises over the United Nations headquarters in New York. With the posting of UN troops in East Timor, the United Nations has become an empire on which the sun does not set.

Reproduced from LM issue 124, October 1999

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