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Only Indonesia Can Save East Timor Now

As violence threatens to take still more lives in East Timor there are probably only three people capable of making any difference: The President of Indonesia B.J. Habibe, leader of the largest opposition party Megawati Sukarnoputri, and ABRI and Indonesian army chief General Wiranto.

In Indonesian terms each these has a relatively good record. So far.

President Habibe has been the caretaker during Indonesia's transition to democracy. Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri, his probable eventual heir, is a symbol of Indonesia's new beginnings, and General Wiranto is the individual most responsible for the relative peacefulness of the transition.

Now all three face possibly their greatest test.

In two weeks time APEC leaders will gather in Auckland to discuss the path to mutual peace and prosperity. On the eve of the meeting events in East Timor threaten to shatter the atmosphere.

Indonesia promised in New York to provide adequate security for the civilian population of East Timor during the coming referendum. As a consequence what happens in East Timor is now a question of honour for the fledgling democracy.

If peace prevails in East Timor Indonesia will be able to hold its head high at APEC in Auckland. Indonesia has come a long way the the past 18 months and has much to be proud of.

But if the brutality continues, East Timor seems likely to quickly become Apec's scab, an easy target to be picked at by the international media and used to highlight again the contradictions in APEC being an exclusively trade concerned body.

In this penultimate year of the 20th century East Timor is in many respects the Kosovo of APEC. Like Kosovo it is a brutalised almost-nation, like Kosovo it is an out of control and apparently unsolvable mess, and like Kosovo it is an issue over which no APEC member is able to claim any moral upper hand.

Since East Timor's annexation of the former colony in 1975, Australia and New Zealand have done a spectacularly poor job of keeping an eye on the genocide on their doorstep.

New Zealand's ever so quiet displeasure is admittedly better than Australia's acquiescent carve-up of the oil reserves in the Timor Straits but neither country can claim any moral high ground.

The US has an even worse record in Indonesia, and East Timor, through the backing by US administrations of a succession of brutal dictators, and their support and encouragement of corruption and crony capitalism.

Last year the world cheered as former President Suharto finally stood down, and peacefully.

Rather than allow another bloodbath the chief of the armed forces and the Indonesian military's political wing General Wiranto ordered his troops to remain calm and encouraged his former close colleague to step aside.

Since then - the Indonesian equivalent of England's glorious revolution - there has been enormous progress. Peaceful democratic elections in Indonesia for the first time ever in June, and now East Timor, Indonesia's very own Vietnam, Northern Ireland or Dagestan, too has a chance at a better future.

The UN is presently describing Monday's scheduled referendum as the best chance to bring a lasting peace in East Timor. On the basis of the latest reports this a highly optimistic assessment.

East Timor - largely as a result of the UN referendum - is now quite clearly on the verge of a civil war.

This was, in reality, always the likely outcome. During the bloody guerilla war of last two and half decades the Indonesian army has lost so many of their own that they were never going to be inclined to embrace the East Timorese independence movement.

And so for the hapless East Timorese there appears to be no way out. If they participate in the referendum they run a risk of being killed. If they vote to stay in Indonesia it will mean more of the same, if they vote to leave they stand a good chance of immediately moving from sporadic incidents of violence, back to widescale violence and brutality.

Several weeks ago when the regular level of intimidation and brutalisation was looking as though it was escalating, and with several open attacks on the UN election monitors, General Wiranto visited East Timor and some calm was restored.

Now unfortunately the East Timorese security forces appear to be reverting to form. Now General Wiranto should go back and supervise the referendum in person.

Only Indonesia is responsible for peace in East Timor and only Indonesia is capable of making any difference.

General Wiranto, President Habibe and Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri must now encourage and direct the Indonesian security forces in East Timor to do the job they have been entrusted, keeping the peace.

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