Timor: How High A Price?

Economic pressure could threaten Indonesia's recovery--and its fledgling attempt at democracy

At first, the long, bloody saga of East Timor seemed to be on the verge of ending well. But now, rampaging militia, armed by the Indonesian military, refuse to accept the outcome of an overwhelming vote for independence. Hundreds are dead, hundreds of thousands more are fleeing. And the anguished international community is wondering how a peaceful polling day deteriorated so terrifyingly, so fast. But even more, they're wondering what to do about it.

The range of punitive measures being considered by governments from Washington to Canberra could turn Indonesia's fledgling democracy into an international pariah and seriously damage economic recovery. Calls for a U.N. intervention force come at a time when foreign lending agencies also are outraged over an eruption of financial scandals. U.S. officials say relations with Indonesia are on a collision course. A group of U.S. Senators introduced legislation Sept. 8 to cut off military assistance and require the U.S. to oppose further World Bank and International Monetary Fund aid. Says Human Rights Watch Asia Director Sidney Jones: "I believe sanctions should have been imposed months ago."

But it's an open question whether an economic hammer would even hit the Indonesian military--the main actor behind the bloodshed in East Timor. "It will levy a price on the government's ability to move forward on economic recovery--and not necessarily change the Indonesian army's behavior," says Columbia University Indonesia expert John Bresnan.

Hampering any solution is the political vacuum engulfing Indonesia. President B.J. Habibie, a lame duck until a new government takes over in November, clearly does not control the military. There is debate over whether armed forces chief General Wiranto entirely controls his soldiers either. The militia members running amok in East Timor mostly are jobless youth recruited by Wiranto's former rival, Gen. Prabowo Subianto, who fled the country following the downfall of former President Suharto. Witnesses say they saw Indonesian soldiers help the militia. Wiranto imposed martial law in East Timor on Sept. 6 and replaced the region's military commander. But the situation continued to deteriorate.

SOLDIERS' POLICY. Ending East Timor's turmoil is vital for Wiranto's political aspirations. The general is a leading contender for Indonesia's vice-presidency. But analysts say he has little regard for international opinion. His focus, rather, is on keeping the military united--even if it costs Timorese lives. If he restores order, "he becomes more valuable as vice-president," says Adam Schwarz, an Indonesia expert at Johns Hopkins University. "This is a guy you want on your side if you want to keep the peace." Other analysts believe Indonesia's military chief abetted the violence to send a warning to other Indonesian minorities desiring autonomy. "I'd be very skeptical of the theory that Wiranto is not in control of the militias," says Australian political scientist Harold Crouch.

When Habibie called for the referendum in the spring, he was running for election and seeking global support. But hundreds of Indonesian soldiers have died in East Timor since the 1975 annexation, so the military was reluctant to give it up easily. Many soldiers believed pro-Jakarta forces would win the vote because commanders for years told them few East Timorese wanted independence. In retaliation, they now are even destroying infrastructure, including telephone service. "This is a scorched earth policy," says one diplomat.

For the residents of East Timor, it's a disaster. The U.N. estimated that as of Sept. 8, a quarter of the population had fled. Agilio, 28, whose village came under fire, was one of them. "The only thing we can do is get out of this situation now," he says. "So long as Indonesia stays, there will be no peace, absolutely no peace." And no easy options, either, for Washington and its allies.

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