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Scoop Opinion: Fire In The Sky

As Kiwi and Aussie diggers hunker down in Dili tonight their future is being decided not at home - where loved ones wait and elected leaders worry - but in Jakarta where the worries of East Timor are increasingly playing second fiddle to a domestic political crisis.

The ANZACs for all their bluster, and the righteousness of their UN mandate, are now pawns in a far larger and more dangerous game than even their best informed leaders believed themselves to be getting into.

With the benefit of a bit of distance and time to enhance perspectives, Australia mounting a peacekeeping mission in Indonesia is roughly equivalent to Taiwan mounting one in China. While the gesture is noble - the consequences, as you might expect, have quickly become highly unpredictable.

Wars do not as a rule begin by design. Rather as in Sarajevo in 1914, circumstances seem to conspire to bring them about. None of the individual players at the beginning of WWI wanted to plunge Europe into the war that was supposed to, but didn't, end all wars.

Similarly now nobody unidentifiably wants Indonesia's quest for democracy to end again in horrific bloodshed. But that doesn't mean it won't.

Once the path of secrets, subterfuge, misinformation, double dealing, betrayal and death is taken - then the inhabitants of the realm have a tendency to bite back. And so we see bloodshed again on the streets of Dili.

Who is directing it? We don't know. Does anybody? The puppet master in this drama, the inscrutable General Wiranto, might have a clue. But it is difficult to imagine that even he anticipated or desired this outcome.

Sure, he is rapidly becoming the beneficiary of it - acquiring supra-parliamentary powers today in the final sitting of the Suharto assembly - but any personal victory seems likely to be shortlived, and you would have to be resolutely optimistic to think even Wiranto really knows the future now.

As Indonesians writing on web based email discussion groups are want to opine, the future is now in the hands of god.

And so as the card-master Wiranto now apparently holds all the cards the world waits and watches.

But what of the West? What happened to the great diplomatic victories of APEC and the crowning moment when President Habibe decided to allow UN peace-keepers to have an opportunity to sort out the festering sore of East Timor?

Two weeks on it is apparent that through their chauvinism the Anglo-saxon club has isolated Indonesia.

The debate in Jakarta is no longer about whether Indonesia should bow to the threats, entreats and cajoling of Western bullies, now it is again, as has so often been the case in Indonesia's history, driven by fear and familiar feelings of nationalism.

As a confidant of Scoop in Jarkarta observed, if the West has an incentive to trust in the honourable intentions of General Wiranto - then how much more do the ordinary working people of Indonesia?

The alternative is to admit some highly repugnant truths about the nature of the most powerful and respected institution in their state. That the Indonesian military has at its heart a core of evil.

Scoop has over the past two weeks tried to be optimistic in its interpretations of General Wiranto's actions. If in the process Scoop erred on the side of naievete then this was intentional. The objective was to preserve hope as despair quickly leads to inaction.

In the process of deliberately trying to put a favourable spin on events from an Indonesian perspective a plethora of questions have arisen. And in the end all that can be confidently said is that there is clearly much more to this whole saga than meets the eye.

Take President Clinton's contribution - the famed speech on the South Lawn of the White House in which he delivered such a loud rebuke to the Indonesian leadership before he set out for his triumphant tour of godzone.

The popular wisdom here in New Zealand on why the Indonesian leader's changed their minds on peace-keepers is that they did so because they took Clinton's threats of economic sanctions and international shaming seriously.

However if this is so, it begs far more questions than it resolves.

For a start, for someone so hung up on his media image and poll ratings the President appeared remarkably self-assured in his criticism. Secondly it is a little far fetched to believe that the Indonesian military would in the space of just four days dismantle a huge covert operation in East Timor which was clearly aimed at undermining the referendum.

And then there are the alleged high level military contacts between General Wiranto and the US Pacific commander Admiral Blair reported by The Nation journalist Allan Nairn.

Nairn (who recently spent a period in Indonesian custody) has reported that on April 8 - by which time things in East Timor were already looking pretty messy - the US agreed to joint military exercises in riot control. He claims that this provides evidence of US complicity in the attempted genocide of the East Timorese people.

However there is another perhaps more plausible explanation - which also provides an explanation for Clinton's confident statement on the White House lawn. Namely, that Wiranto gave Admiral Blair assurances that he was moving against the "rogue elements" in the East Timor command and that he wanted US assistance in his venture.

If so we have, in short, another deception. One that has, it seems, worked in General Wiranto's favour as the secrecy encouraged the chauvinist western media and governmental response and thereby boosted the nationalist backlash in Jakarta.

As is usually the case with deceit, now it is starting to backfire. Wiranto is either unable or unwilling to hold up his end of the bargain and the US, because officially it never saw or heard, is left twiddling its thumbs on the sidelines.

Meanwhile back in Jakarta it is playing well for Wiranto's politcal career. The fiasco in East Timor is either the UN's fault or the hapless Habibe's folly, while the card-master is the strong leader trying to keep the great nation of Indonesia together.

Meanwhile the killing by the Kopassus continues in Aceh, and it seems Dili too.

Whether it is orchestrated or not is unclear. At best Wiranto has lost control of his military and is an ineffective commander. At worst he is a monster - albeit now, thanks to Western handwringing and grandstanding, a popular one.

But what about the war crimes tribunals - why would Wiranto risk indictment?

Is he? Have the war criminals of Indonesia ever been brought to justice before? Will they now? Will there be a more convenient scapegoat? It seems likely.

And so we have - in short - a mess. The fact UN peacekeepers are on the ground in East Timor means it is now the world's mess as well as Indonesia's, but only Indonesia can clean it up.

The incoming Indonesian Parliament - to be sworn in on October 5 - faces an enormous challenge. In the midst of a rising nationalist backlash it must require the obedience and service that all great democracy's expect from their military institutions.

Its challenge will be to bring to an end the cycle of brutality that has for so long been Indonesia's past. To do so it will need to honestly face demons which it most probably doesn't feel inclined to challenge, ever, let alone at the very beginning of its life.

This challenge is probably the greatest faced by any embryonic Parliament in world history. But while there while there is sentience and humanity there is still hope.

As far as the West is concerned - perhaps it is time to put the indignance aside and instead provide a bit of honesty into the mix. God help us all, we need it.

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