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East Timor: We Must Keep Hope Alive

As the forces of chaos gather strength in East Timor APEC faces its greatest challenge. Scoop's Alastair Thompson argues we owe it to the people of East Timor not to give up hope.

This morning I - like many radio listeners in New Zealand - was stunned by an interview with Sister Marlena in Dili, East Timor broadcast on National Radio's Kim Hill show.

Sister Marlena's dignity and strength came through in her voice, serenely calm, as she spoke of the 300 women and children who have found sanctuary with her and her sisters.

Sister Marlena said she hadn't the heart to tell her refugees that it seemed likely there would be no cavalry to come to their rescue. I, like so many listeners I expect, cried, with anger, sorrow and deep feelings of futility.

But for the sake of Sister Marlena and her wards we - especially here in New Zealand - must not give up hope.

We cannot afford to allow the forces of evil to defeat the overwhelming desire of the people of the world for peace, and to finally bring an end to the cycle of brutality that plagues the world at the end of the 20th Century..

Sister Marlena and her wards will pray for their salvation. I will pray too. But much more needs to be done.

New Zealand will in three days begin hosting a meeting of the leaders of the nations of the Pacific rim. This will in all likelihood be the only opportunity to make a real difference to the outcome in East Timor.

At this time anger at Indonesia and APEC is counterproductive.

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This crisis is not solely Indonesian President B.J Habibe's and General Wiranto's responsibility. It is all of ours and it is a product of a defective system of international relations.

The crisis in East Timor has its genesis in a world full of economic injustice, in which Indonesia at the beginning of 1998 was plunged into an economic crisis by panicky Western banks and impotent Western governments who then refused to make any real attempts to deal with the almost total collapse of the Indonesian economy.

Now as chaos rears its head in East Timor the US and the world threatens economic sanctions against Indonesia. This will - I am sure - achieve nothing.

Indonesia like so many developing nations is full of strident, growing, nationalistic forces. When the US President threatens economic sanctions - as he did last week - in Indonesia it merely confirms the prejudices that only through imperialistic conquest can Indonesia achieve the prosperity it believes it deserves.

And thus the hand of those who would wage genocide against the people of East Timor is strengthened.

So is there another way?

Yes. Dialogue, reconciliation, and engaging the hearts and minds of the people of Indonesia.

The only way to bring peace to East Timor, and salvation to Sister Marlena and her wards, is to make Indonesia believe it is in its interests to allow peace.

In practice that means the West must make it politically viable for Indonesia's moderates - and its religious leaders - to argue the cause of peace. Over the next few days APEC holds the key to making this possible.

Imperialism's enemy is cooperation and co-existance. Indonesia feels increasingly isolated and under seige. But it is an infant democracy and it is not yet necessarily set in its ways.

While APEC - with typically diplomatic selective blindness - refuses to publicly acknowledge the connection between human rights and trade liberalisation the connection is there and it is very strong.

If Indonesia is pilloried, threatened and humiliated at APEC then we can probably safely assume that Sister Marlena will be martyred.

So we must try something else. APEC must offer Indonesia hope.

Indonesia's leaders need to leave Auckland taking news back to their people that the world has changed, that the world is ready and willing to embrace Indonesia through trade so as to assist it to become the great democracy that its people deserve.

At APEC this means in practice that the United States and Japan particularly must acknowledge their economic responsibility to help Indonesia through opening their markets to Indonesian commerce and trade. Only then will Indonesia have an incentive pursue the path to peace.

Scoop believes this is a truly momentous moment in the history of the world, New Zealand and South East Asian region. We have but one chance to make a difference and it is now.

Over the next few days Scoop intends to host a dialogue with APEC countries, human rights groups, anti-Apec protestors and world leaders - if possible - on their views on how trade-liberalisation and human rights objectives can be married together.

Perhaps then hope may restored to the people of the world and Sister Marlena be saved.

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