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In a month dominated by the non-news of what appears to be an issueless election, it is hardly surprising that the continuing tragedy of East Timor has elicited minimal concern. Possibly this is because we, as a nation and people, are so self-obsessed that we believe there is little to learn from others and other situations.

As a multi-ethnic society, India has faced its share of disturbances by quiescent minority groups. These stirrings, some taking the shape of struggles for self-determination, have been handled with varying degrees of success. The Mizo Accord of 1985 is often cited as a textbook example of taming an armed insurgency and bringing the region and its people into the national mainstream. Kashmir, on the other hand, remains a troubled site, often raising disturbing political and ethical questions about Indian policy and practise.

Given our troubled legacy – be it regarding externally fuelled insurgency and terrorism or more genuine complaints about systemic discrimination and violation of human rights by the affected populace – India, more than most other states, should have been sensitive to the concerns and fears that East Timor raises. Do we not know that when outside parties raise humanitarian concerns, these are imbricated in the complex geopolitics of national self-interest? Equally, faced with situations of severe repression, if not genocide, have we not intervened in other nation-states? Or do Bangladesh and Sri Lanka stand as cases apart?

East Timor was annexed by Indonesia a few months after the departure of the original colonising power, Portugal, in 1975. Given Indonesia’s crucial role in the ‘free’ world’s anti-Communist containment strategy, no one vociferously objected to the take-over. No furious cries about human rights; nothing about the rights of an oppressed people’s for self-determination.

The situation today has somewhat changed. Indonesia is a state in crisis. President Suharto was forced to step down, the military lost credibility, and the country is negotiating the difficult path towards democratisation. More significantly, through the last quarter century, the East Timorese have continued to struggle and won greater support for their cause. That is why the violent crackdown by armed militias on East Timor ostensibly with Indonesian military support, despite the verdict of the UN held referendum, has caused such deep dismay.

We are now witnessing the spectacle of an armed multinational peacekeeping force, with Australia taking the lead, intervening in East Timor, ostensibly to hold Indonesia to its promise of respecting the verdict of the referendum. The East Timorese, by an overwhelming majority, voted for independence as against continuing as an autonomous province within Indonesia. The moral basis of their claim is undeniable, as is their need for external assistance.

Yet, the previous experience of peacekeeping forces, be it under the UN, NATO, or US aegis, hardly inspires confidence. The examples of Cambodia, Somalia, Iraq, Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, and the latest, Kosovo, clearly underline the danger that armed intervention, even for humanitarian reasons, may well end up exacerbating the tragedy.

At one level there is the debate about the mode of intervention. Would diplomacy or economic sanctions against Indonesia prove more effective than a peacekeeping force? Even if armed intervention is agreed to as the best strategy, would not a regional force under ASEAN be more credible? At least it might dampen the accusations about US hegemony, a view which has gained strength post-Iraq.

Underlying the discussions on the various proposals is not just a concern about efficacy and least-cost strategies. Most nations, legitimately, are concerned about a further weakening of the principle of inviolability of national sovereignty. Already hemmed in by a series of multilateral agreements, from WTO to human rights, the presence of foreign troops is seen as akin to recolonisation. But even more than the concern about legitimising external intervention is a deep and visceral fear, particularly in multi-ethnic states, of a snowballing effect. Of, like in the erstwhile USSR and Yugoslavia, East Timor becoming the harbinger of the unravelling of the state. And the region falling prey to the machinations of the powerful.

Without discounting any of these fears there needs to be equivalent concern, and from within the states on the firing line, regarding the rights and freedoms of the affected people. Using the bogey of an external danger to suppress local disaffection is the favourite ploy of despotic regimes. And as long as this serves the interests of the globally powerful, status quo ante is maintained. Indians, whatever their apprehensions about Kashmir, need to debate East Timor if we wish to recapture the moral terrain in politics.

Harsh Sethi