I got several objections to my recent column on East Timor pointing out that Indonesia had taken over the former Portuguese colony by force in 1975, an acquisition not recognized diplomatically by a number of countries and protested by numerous human rights campaigners. So the general rule under the older theory, that the "international community” usually left internal disputes within nations recognized as sovereign alone, wouldn’t necessarily apply to Indonesia and East Timor.
Fair enough. One could cobble together some sort of theoretical justification for intervention in East Timor based on protecting its residents against an ongoing act of aggression by the central Indonesian government. Why one would choose to do so now, during just one of the episodes of state violence directed against the East Timorese that have cost some 200,000 lives over the past couple of decades might raise questions of whether one was really guided by an enduring principle of opposition to human-rights abuse or mere opportunism. But a justification could be constructed under the old nation-state paradigm.
The other and perhaps more important question, however, is whether intervention is likely to be effective at stopping the slaughter and creating a human-rights paradise. It seems to me much more difficult to construct a pragmatic case for intervention than a theoretical case.
WHOSE NATIONAL INTEREST?
To some Americans, of course, the fact that East Timor is an island on the other side of the world whose troubles few Americans understand (except that they don’t seem to affect national security much) is reason enough to be dubious about sending or even providing logistical and financial support for "peacekeeping” troops. But lack of knowledge or compelling interest might be the weakest argument against intervention. The more you understand about recent Timorese and Indonesian history the less likely it seems that foreign intervention is likely to accomplish much.
Renting the old Mel Gibson movie "The Year of Living Dangerously” offers a taste of Indonesian atmosphere, but much has happened since 1965, when that film was set. Sukarno was replaced by Suharto in the 1965 coup, and after a short period of hope revealed himself as a brutal autocrat with a special gift for using government power to enrich his family.
In 1975, Portugal granted independence to the island of Timor, which it had colonized. Indonesia (which had gained independence from the Dutch in 1947) invaded East Timor and took over brutally with the tacit blessing of the United States, which was worried about a Marxist insurgency and possible Cold War implications. Since then some 200,000 Timorese have been killed, with the most brutal killing coming at the hands of the Indonesian military and police, along with anti-secessionist or "integrationist” militias whom most observers believe are backed and subsidized by the Indonesian military.
NO CLAMOR FOR INTERVENTION
Nobody well, not quite nobody, some mainly leftist human-rights advocates clamored with little impact called for intervention or humanitarian rescue missions. The United States wanted to remain on good terms with Indonesia (the fourth most populous country in the world at 209 million, with oil reserves and a strategic position along heavily traveled sea lanes). Diplomats feared that siding with the Timorese would encourage other parts of Indonesia some 14,000 islands sprawling across three time zones to think about secession, and the attitude was that breaking up existing nation-states (whether they made demographic sense or not) was just about the most terrible thing that could ever happen.
The collapse of Indonesia’s currency last year precipitated the Asian economic crisis and the resignation of Suharto. The new president, B.J. Habibie, announced national elections for this November and a separate referendum (between independence and greater autonomy within Indonesia) for East Timor, to be supervised by the United Nations.
When independence got a 78 percent majority, anti-independence militias stepped up the violence that has received such intense attention in recent weeks. Now President Clinton has warned the Indonesian government that if it can’t control the violence it should invite an international force under the United Nations to restore something resembling order.
WHO CONTROLS THE MILITIAS?
While the militias have often acted at the behest of the Indonesian government, however, there are serious questions as to whether the Indonesian military or government can control them or for that matter whether the civilian government controls the official Indonesian military. But most authorities agree that there are 20,000 to 30,000 armed militia fighters in East Timor. There is some evidence the militias are starting to fight among themselves. In addition there are 2,000 highly trained Kopassus troops, 15,000 Indonesian army forces and 8,000 police.
All of these forces are familiar with the challenging terrain East Timor is mountainous, with few roads and some peaks as high as 9,700 feet as the 7,000 UN forces now contemplated would not be. In addition to the militias, any UN force would probably face harassment by rogue elements of the regular army.
Throw in the additional complication that the country most eager to send troops and now designated as the lead country for a UN occupation force is Australia, precisely the country, for various historic and proximity reasons, most likely to inspire opposition within Indonesia. And sure enough, there were demonstrations in Djakarta against an Australian-led intervention. The Indonesian government later said it would be just Jim-dandy with them if Australian troops came in and cleaned up the Timorese mess, but one has to wonder how sincere that sentiment was. And one has to wonder whether the Indonesian government will be able to control anti-Australian sentiment and possible anti-Australian violence.
THE YUGOSLAVIA OF ASIA?
Ted Carpenter, Cato Institute‘s defense and international relations analyst, views Indonesia as the "Yugoslavia of Asia” in the sense that it is a nation-state cobbled together by the accidents of colonial history rather than national or ethnic coherence. Looking at the map you could make a case for it being one country or six countries. East Timor is an issue because it happened to be colonized by Portugal whereas the rest of the country was ruled by the Dutch. Active and armed secessionist movements exist in the oil-rich provinces of Aceh and Irian Jaya.
Any decent person would hope that all these problems (we haven’t even touched on the ethnic and religious issues) could be sorted out and settled peacefully. But most realists doubt it. It will take years, and sadly a good deal of blood is likely to be shed in the process.
To imagine that a force of international "peacekeepers” would be very helpful able to do much more than protect a few cities, enforce an occasional temporary cease-fire, and stand guard over an isolated UN compound is even less realistic than hoping no more Indonesian blood will be shed. Indeed, such a force could delay a genuine resolution by becoming both a participant and a puppet in struggles that the Indonesian people themselves should handle.
THE UTOPIAN IMPULSE
The notion that a well-meaning military force backed by mandates from "nation-builders” who maintain offices in New York and float from international conference to international conference can create a harmonious utopia in parts of the world riven by ethnic conflict is one of the more pernicious illusions driving interventionist policy. You can see the dreaminess in Kosovo, just as you can see it in the earlier international occupation of Bosnia.
The interventions are usually predicated on the idea that the most desirable outcome is a multiethnic state living in harmony through wise policies enforced by outside powers. That’s the dream, familiar to anybody who has ever gone to college in the United States or any part of the Western world. Sending bombs, missiles and troops to rip apart some "backward” region of the world is always justified by complaints about ethnic hostility, ethnic cleansing or atavistic attitudes. The nation to be "built” along enlightened lines is envisioned as a modern, well-managed welfare state with a huge (but professional) bureaucracy, a labyrinth of laws and directives, a veritable paradise of progressive micro-management ensuring harmony and well being.
Or you could be more cynical and see the nation-builders as frustrated theorists unable to apply their clean theories in their home countries because the politics are too messy and democratic opposition too robust. So they pick some putatively backward country as a living laboratory for their ivory-tower theories.
But you can’t start with a clean slate in those countries. No matter how ignorant the insulated theorists are of local conditions, they all have histories often remembered and rehearsed to a fault. So the result, despite the pretensions of the international bureaucrats to be able to build a happy, peaceful, ethnically diverse and integrated society, is usually de facto partition along ethnic lines, as has happened in Bosnia and is happening in Kosovo.
We needed international intervention to accomplish this?