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Why the world is right not to act quickly in Timor

In Scoop's second guest commentary Indonesia watcher Jim Rolfe of Victoria University argues that calls for unilateral military intervention over East Timor are wrongheaded.

East Timor: why the world is right not to act quickly

Calls for unilateral military intervention in East Timor are understandable but wrongheaded. Images of refugees fleeing violence, reports (whether true or not) of mass killings and fears that the Indonesian military is preparing to take over the country, when set against the results of the ballot overwhelmingly rejecting even greatly increased autonomy within Indonesia in favour of independence lead many to cry ‘something must be done’. Military action with or without Indonesian agreement is a popular solution. The NATO intervention in Kosovo is used as an example of what can be done.

These calls are wrong for several reasons.

They are wrong firstly because they do not match ends with means. There is no guarantee that military action would lead to better conditions for East Timor. In Kosovo most of the killing occurred after the start of military action. The calls assume that humanitarian and democratic impulses should take priority over political and economic interests whatever the costs. That may be so, but more analysis is necessary. The United States, for example, has resisted calls to become involved in any action because the area is outside its area of strategic interest; not the case in Kosovo. The area is within New Zealand’s are of interest, but our interests may be better served by not acting.

The calls are wrong secondly because there is no military action that can be taken with any hope of success (except of course with Indonesian agreement in which case extreme military action is not necessary). The comparisons with Kosovo are again misplaced. Indonesia is a quite different country from landlocked Kosovo and presents quite different problems. There is no command structure in place to control a military operation. In Kosovo NATO was able to use existing structures. Here, the major powers have no close bases from which to mount operations. Again, Kosovo was surrounded by NATO bases and by states prepared to allow their facilities to be used. The logistic requirements of mounting an opposed military operation are greater than any state or group of states (including the United States) is likely to be able to afford. If the Indonesian armed forces opposed military action, those states taking the action would in effect be going to war with an otherwise friendly country. That is not a situation to get into lightly.

Thirdly, calls for unilateral military action are wrong because they do not take into account the likely reaction of other regional states. The only countries which have indicated any support at all for military action have white faces. There seems little doubt that ASEAN states (of which Indonesia is a prominent member) would react strongly to an invasion of a member state. New Zealand needs to take that kind of reaction into account. Any military action would need several Asian states to participate. They will not without Indonesia’s agreement.

Finally, unilateral military action would be wrong because it would unify the Indonesian armed forces around the hardliners who could then call on the need for national unity. At the moment in Indonesia there is a struggle between those who want Indonesia to become a modern plural country committed to the norms of political and social behaviour that we more or less take for granted and those who want Indonesia to remain as their personal power base and treasure chest. The split is not simply between civilian and military authorities. It is in our interests to ensure that the nascent movement within the armed forces to remove themselves from politics is strengthened not lost behind calls for national unity against external threat.

If military action is not sensible, what then can be done? In a word: diplomacy.

The most likely pressure point to achieve success is to work on Indonesia’s sense of its place in the modern world. Clearly, the current leadership was prepared to let East Timor leave and equally clearly that decision was not universally accepted. Diplomatic activity should be aimed at those who supported the original decision to reinforce their original sense that the decision they made was correct. Diplomatic activity should also be aimed at those who oppose independence to convince them that the costs of holding the province are higher than the benefits from retaining it.

None of this should be done publicly. Megaphone diplomacy may be satisfying to those practicing it and their publics, but it is not as effective as the traditional in private discussions which allow face to be saved and pride retained.

If public symbolism is necessary military links can be cut and economic aid programmes reduced. These will have little practical effect on the country’s leadership (indeed they may hurt those we are trying to help) but they may satisfy those who call for something to be done.

This is a slow business and a frustrating one. But it’s one where it’s better to get things right than to get them done merely for the sake of doing them.


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