The sight of ferocious militias running amok in East Timor, killing people who just voted for their independence, is horrible indeed. The Indonesian military, who organized and armed these militias, is accountable. But the United Nations and Western election observers are responsible as well. Once again, good intentions could not protect a minority population within a sovereign nation from the wrath of the dominant power. Whether it is clans in Somalia, Muslims in Yugoslavia, or Timorese in Indonesia, U.N. promises have not been able to save the victimized. Indeed, Western intervention has made things worse.
There is now growing pressure on Washington to stop all aid to Jakarta to punish the country. This would be a serious mistake. Indonesia has just had its first truly democratic election, and the civilian government would be undermined by this action, not the military. The military sees itself as the unifier of Indonesia's 13,000 islands and dozens of separate ethnic and religious groups. Atrocities in East Timor cannot be excused, but instability in Indonesia is a nightmare shared all over Southeast Asia.
The votes in Jakarta and East Timor are direct consequences of Indonesia's integration into the global economy. But civil institutions are still weak. The military retains enormous power. The goal of Washington foreign policy should be to support the integration of Indonesia into the global economy and bolster the shift to civilian rule. This is a long-term process that requires long-term strategic vision.