THE EAST TIMOR CRISIS: The Consequences for Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and the Region

By Brown, Bruce | New Zealand International Review, September 2000 | Go to article overview

THE EAST TIMOR CRISIS: The Consequences for Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and the Region


Brown, Bruce, New Zealand International Review


Bruce Brown reports on a recent NZIIA seminar, held in Wellington in July 2000.

On 5 and 6 July 2000 the NZIIA, in association with the AustralAsia Center of the Asia Society of New York, held a seminar to consider the consequences of the crisis over East Timor for Indonesia and the Asia-Pacific region, including Australia and New Zealand. A distinguished panel of speakers, drawn from the United States, Japan, China, Indonesia, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand and also East Timor, in the person of Xanana Guamao, President of the National Council for Timorese Resistance, contributed over the two days. Some 150 people attended the seminar and stayed throughout its sessions -- not always the case on these occasions.

One of the key themes which came out of the meeting was the widespread concern felt in the region for the future political stability of Indonesia. By comparison, the prospects for East Timor to become a small but viable independent state, and one likely to require substantial assistance over a long term, was seen as being of a lesser dimension. Despite international concern at the violence in East Timor, it was the future course of a democratic Indonesia, with its 210 million people, which had most worried the region.

The seminar was opened by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Phil Goff, who noted that the successful (if belated) international intervention in East Timor had created public expectations about other crises which might be difficult to meet. There was a right time for such an intervention. It was no use sending in a peacekeeping force if there was no peace to keep. For example, many people in the Solomons, church groups and others, might well wish for Australian and New Zealand intervention, but those with the power of the gun did not. Yet if the situation in a country reached a stage where fighting spread from a limited conflict between contending groups to have a disastrous impact on the civil community, public pressure through the media, especially the television networks, for some form of action might become almost irresistible.

In the East Timor case, matters had had to reach the point at which Indonesia could be persuaded to accept an international force. (An Australian speaker commented that Australia and New Zealand were not prepared to risk a war with Indonesia by intervening without such an agreement.) The credibility of the United Nations was also at stake in East Timor, the Minister observed, since UNAMET had guaranteed to protect people after the vote on independence but did not have the means to do so.

Changed perception

Goff reflected also that the East Timor crisis had changed the perception of the need for military forces among some people in New Zealand who might otherwise have been disposed to question the need for them. He added that New Zealand was ready to help the reconstruction of East Timor, in such fields as police, customs, education and agriculture. It would be a long process.

Dewi Anwar Fortuna, of the Habibie Centre in Jakarta, traced the background to the crisis. East Timor had not been included in the independent state of Indonesia because it was a Portuguese colony and Indonesia was essentially the territory of the former Netherlands East Indies. The takeover by Indonesia in 1976, after the Portuguese in effect walked out, had been a covert military and intelligence operation about which the Indonesian public knew very little. Nonetheless, it was supported by the Western powers at the time, especially by the United States, which feared in those Cold War days that pro-communist forces would gain control of the territory. Indonesia's control of East Timor, while not generally recognised internationally, was therefore tolerated.

In fact it proved to be a continuing diplomatic problem for Indonesia and after the fall of the Suharto government, which changed everything, President B.J. Habibie -- pushed by Australia, which suddenly reversed its previous policy of recognising Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor -- decided to offer a ballot on autonomy or independence for the territory. …

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