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Southeast Asia

Asean's commitment to East Timor faces tough test
By Sonny Inbaraj

DILI, East Timor - Previously hostile toward East Timor, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) faces a serious test this week of its commitment to the newest nation 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. They are due in Thailand on Tuesday before moving on to Malaysia and the Philippines.

For East Timor, membership in the 10-member Asean would help cement the nation's credentials with the region as an entity independent from Indonesia. It would 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 terrorized East Timor after the August 30 UN-supported independence referendum, killing an untold number and sending hundreds of thousands of people fleeing to neighboring West Timor, Asean was criticized by the international community for failing to act to resolve a conflict in its own backyard.

Security analysts have 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 Organization 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 leaders 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 program at prestigious Thammasat University.

In 1996, the Malaysian 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 conference participants were arrested. 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 the Philippines have broken ranks with the rest of Asean in the rebuilding of devastated East Timor. The Thais were the first Asian forces in the Australian-led International Force for East Timor (Interfet) sent on September 20 to quell the militia violence in the territory. A Thai major-general was appointed deputy Interfet commander.

Thai Deputy Foreign Minister Sukhumbhand Paribatra defended Thailand's active role in restoring peace in East Timor. When criticized in the region for being too close to Australia, he said the country could 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 neighbor 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, as the only other predominantly Catholic nation in the region. And the United Nations has named a Filipino, Lieutenant General Jaime Delos Santos, to command the 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 will 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 non-governmental organization, 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.

It is still uncertain whether Gusmao will meet Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, with Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar saying there is 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.

Mahathir, who often lectures Western countries for their ''hypocrisy and double standards'', has been a staunch defender of Indonesian behavior 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 retaliate 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.

(Inter Press Service)



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