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EAST TIMOR: ASEAN’s Commitment to New Nation Tested

Analysis - Sonny Inbaraj

DILI, East Timor, Jan 31 2000 (IPS) - Previously hostile toward East Timor, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) now faces a serious test, this week, in its commitment to the newest nation state in the region.

East Timor’s independence leader Xanana Gusmao and Nobel Peace Laureate Jose Ramos-Horta are on a whirlwind eight-day tour of ASEAN — due to set foot in Thailand on Tuesday before moving on to Malaysia and the Philippines.

For East Timor, membership in the 10-country ASEAN would help cement the new nation state’s credentials with the region as an entity independent from Indonesia.

It will also carry some modest development benefits if plans for Southeast Asia-wide economic cooperation gain real momentum.

But the challenges ahead for Gusmao and Ramos-Horta, in gaining ASEAN support, are truly daunting.

While the Western world supported the cause of self- determination of the East Timorese people after Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975, ASEAN member turned their backs on East Timor in the name of regional solidarity with Indonesia.

Human rights groups estimate that more than 200,000 East Timorese, a third of the population, died as a result of the invasion.

When Indonesian military-supported militias terrorised East Timor after the Aug 30 UN-supported independence referendum, killing an untold number and sending hundreds of thousands of people to neighbouring West Timor, ASEAN was criticised by the international community for failing to act to resolve a conflict in its own backyard.

Security analysts hit out at the 22-member ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), saying it made no contribution to resolving the East Timor conflict in the past, and had little to offer now.

“Unlike the more sophisticated and tested Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, ARF has made no attempt to deal with member states that violate basic international standards of human rights,” said Richard Tanter, professor of international relations at Japan’s Kyoto Seika University.

But Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong argues otherwise. “It (East Timor) was not a problem created by ASEAN, it was and is an international problem that remains an issue with the United Nations. It never started off as an Asean problem,” he told reporters in November.

Though the diplomatic niceties will, without doubt, be shown toward East Timor’s leders in their regional swing, past events, however, cannot be undone.

In May 1994, then Philippine President Fidel Ramos, bowing to pressure from Jakarta, tried to ban an international conference on East Timor in Manila and blacklisted Ramos-Horta.

Later that year, Ramos-Horta was made persona non grata in Thailand and banned from entering Bangkok in 1995 to teach at a diplomacy training programme in prestigious Thammasat University.

In 1996, the Mahathir government said the Nobel Peace Laureate was not welcome in Kuala Lumpur to open an East Timor conference. That conference was later violently disrupted by a youth group associated with the government and the Malaysian participants arrested by police.

In 1997, Ramos-Horta was again refused entry into Manila by Philippine immigration. He was to have given a guest lecture at the University of the Philippines.

But, now, it seems Thailand and Philippines have broken ranks with the rest of ASEAN in the rebuilding of a devastated East Timor.

The Thais were the first Asian forces in the Australian-led International Force for East Timor (Interfet) sent on Sep 20 to quell the militia violence in the territory. A Thai major-general was deputy Interfet commander.

Thai deputy foreign minister Sukhumbhand Paribatra defended Thailand’s active role in restoring peace in East Timor. When criticised in the region as being too close to the Australians, he said the country can act on its own without having to do so under ASEAN.

“We can do many things under our own banner. It is not necessary to be under the ASEAN banner to help restore peace in East Timor. We are a good UN member and a good neighbour of Indonesia,” he was quoted as saying in the Bangkok press in October.

The Philippines on the other hand has contributed medical and logistics personnel to Interfet, rather than ground troops.

In the long run, the Philippines might emerge as a natural ally of East Timor — being the only other predominantly Catholic nation in the region.

Also, the United Nations has named a Filipino general, Lieutenant General Jaime Delos Santos, to command a full-fledged UN peacekeeping force, which takes over from Interfet on Tuesday.

In Bangkok, Gusmao and Ramos-Horta are scheduled to meet Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan and Thai army chief General Surayud Chulanonda.

Thailand would be pushing for East Timor to be given observer status in ASEAN, and later full membership in the regional grouping once it becomes an independent state.

A Thai NGO known as Thailand’s Relief Project for Timor, with former prime minister Anand Panyarachun as chairman, has been formed with prominent politicians, academics and journalists as members. The NGO plans to work with local Timorese groups and will be using the visit by the two East Timorese leaders to raise funds.

While Bangkok’s Saranom Palace was more forthcoming with the East Timorese leaders’ visit, Kuala Lumpur’s Wisma Putra, however, has been tight-lipped.

It is still uncertain whether Gusmao will meet Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, with Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar saying there was no agenda for his visit. No mention was made of Ramos-Horta.

The Mahathir government is still seething with anger after the East Timorese leadership effectively vetoed a proposal by Malaysia to take command of the UN-sanctioned peacekeeping force. Ramos-Horta warned of civil disobedience, in East Timor, if Malaysia were given command of the UN force.

Mahathir, who often lectures western countries for their “hypocrisy and double standards”, has been a staunch defender of Indonesian behaviour in East Timor.

Asked in Singapore to explain his opposition to East Timor’s independence in light of his outspoken support for the right of Kosovo, which has a Muslim majority, to break away from Serbia, Mahathir said Indonesia was entitled to integrate the territory.

“The difference between East Timor and Kosovo is that East Timor has been with Indonesia for 25 years, and during that time there were no massacres,” Mahathir said. “The Indonesians were not behaving like Serbs.”

Now, Malaysia could throw the spanner in the works by opposing observer status in ASEAN for East Timor, especially since Ramos-Horta is also known to be a supporter of Mahathir’s arch enemy — jailed former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.

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