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East Timor: Tiny Crack in U.S.-Indonesian Relations Grows

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 9, 1999 – The problems in East Timor have strategic ramifications for the United States, said Marvin Ott, professor of national security policy at the National Defense University here.

Indonesia, with roughly 212 million people, is the fourth most populous country in the world, Ott said during an interview. It is also the world's largest Muslim country and the largest nation, by far, in Southeast Asia, he said.

The nation is made up of 24 provinces and two special regions spread across 17,000 islands. Indonesia spans well over 3,000 miles. If you could superimpose the country on North America, its west side would be over Seattle and its east over Bermuda.

Indonesia in crisis has severe implications for the region, Ott continued. For the last 30 years, Southeast Asia has been an economic dynamo, he said, and Indonesia has been the linchpin of the region's economy.

"As Indonesia goes, so goes the region," Ott said.

Another strategic aspect is that Indonesia sits astride the Pacific and Indian oceans in some of the world's most heavily trafficked sea lanes. Roughly half of the world's commerce, by value, flows through the straits of Indonesia, Ott said.

In his opinion, he said, a crisis in Indonesia would affect other strategic relationships. "As one looks at strategic world of the future the great national conflict is between the United States and China," he said. "The principal arena in which this would be played out is Taiwan and Southeast Asia."

China sees Southeast Asia as an opportunity to flex its muscles, Ott said. Regional stability calls for a strong, unified Indonesia.

Indonesia has been going through an economic crisis since 1997. Ott said there is some sense the country is coming out of the crisis.

Since the 1960s and the army's overthrow of President Sukarno, President Suharto ruled the country. The United States maintained good relations because it saw Indonesia as pro- Western and anti-communist, Ott said.

"The relationship was not intimate, nevertheless the United States and Indonesia constructed a steady relationship over all dimensions during Suharto," he said. Suharto was forced from office in 1998 and replaced by Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie.

Ott called East Timor the one problem in the U.S.-Indonesian relationship. In 1975, the Portuguese left East Timor and Indonesia moved in. The people of East Timor never reconciled themselves to Indonesian occupation, he said.

East Timor is in the middle of the archipelago, and the political parties that formed after the Portuguese left were Marxist-leftist dominated, Ott said. Further, the people of East Timor are ethnically Melanesian Catholics in an ethnically Malaysian Muslim country.

"The prospect of a Marxist country in the middle of Indonesia was intolerable to the army, so they moved in," he remarked. "There was a guerrilla resistance movement for independence in East Timor that the Indonesian army fought with extreme brutality." The population of the province is 800,000. News accounts have put the death toll on the island at 200,000 since 1975.

The current troubles started when Habibie publicly announced he would permit a referendum on East Timor, the choices being greater autonomy within Indonesia or independence.

"This was a bolt from blue," Ott said. "It upset the Indonesian military, who were not consulted." On East Timor, vested groups reacted violently. "The Indonesian military, long-stationed in East Timor, organized militias against independence. They armed them, they gave them rudimentary training and set them loose. These militias became marauding thugs and things got ugly pretty fast."

For whatever reason, the militias backed off during the election. The referendum took place with 98 percent of the eligible voters turning out. About 80 percent voted for independence.

Habibie respected the results and said he would push for a ratification vote in parliament, Ott said. For a moment, it looked like it would work, but then all hell broke loose and the militias turned the country into a killing zone."

So, what was a small irritant in U.S.-Indonesian relations is now a major world problem that may call for an international force to stabilize the situation. According to Ott, the best solution in the province remains with the Indonesians.

Ott said an independent East Timor would still be bound to Indonesia by economics. "East Timor is a poor, hardscrabble country," he said. "It would be an economic basket case. It has no future economically except in close cooperation with Indonesia."

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