Tuesday, May 09, 2000

To 'interfere' or not

by ONG JU LIN

XANANA Gusmao and Jose Ramos Horta's visit to Malaysia in February signified a new era in Malaysia's relationship with East Timor. Just six months before that, Malaysia had accused the West of taking advantage of Indonesia following the fall of Suharto and orchestrating East Timor's independence. Today, the Malaysian Government has pledged to help East Timor rebuild their country.

Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar, in welcoming the East Timorese leaders, said, "It is important for us to look at East Timor as an independent country and we will continuously build up the relationship based on this.''

This rapid turnaround in Malaysia's response to East Timor before and after its independence calls for more scrutiny of our foreign policy, observes Dr Sumit Mandal, lecturer at Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (Ikmas) of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

"The implications of recent events concerning East Timor beg us to look into the meaning of the non-interference principle which Malaysia held to during the 24 years of Indonesian domination,'' he says.

As an Asean member country, Malaysia abides by that principle in the internal affairs of a member country. This is the founding principle of Asean, the basis of which is to avoid political and military conflicts and to foster regional economic development.

Right from the start, when Indonesia invaded East Timor, Asean had dismissed East Timor's long struggle for independence as an internal affair of Indonesia. When Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, Malaysia, with all other Asean member countries (except Singapore), in an act of Asean solidarity, voted for Indonesia when the United Nations General Assembly condemned the invasion and called for Indonesia to withdraw. Singapore fell in line in 1977.

The invasion was not only sanctioned by Asean countries but by Western superpowers too. American complicity in Indonesia's invasion and subsequent repression of East Timor has been amply documented. According to American author and political analyst Noam Chomsky, US backing of Indonesia came as a result of fear that East Timor would become a "South-East Asian Cuba''.

The fear of communism taking root in an economically and politically important region drove the United States into providing the means of invasion. In fact, the invasion was in full force after the visit of American President Gerald Ford to Jakarta in 1975 during which his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, gave his blessings to Suharto, asking the invasion to be quick and efficient.

In another show of support for Indonesia, Asean member countries again abided by the policy of non-interference in the Nov 12, 1991, Dili Cemetery Massacre. Eye-witness accounts and a video recording by British filmmaker Max Stahl showed that the Indonesian military had opened fire at unarmed demonstrators, killing 271 people, including 20-year-old Malaysian student Kamal Bamadhaj who was shot outside the cemetery.

Kamal's death went largely unreported in the Malaysian media. But the Dili killings brought international attention to East Timor's struggle and even seeped through to the citizens of Asean member countries. However, efforts to help the Timorese were mostly confined to NGOs.
One such effort was the Asia-Pacific Coalition on East Timor (Apcet) conference. It was first held in Manila in 1994 to show South-South solidarity with the Timorese.

The second Apcet was held in Kuala Lumpur in 1996 despite the expressed disapproval of the Malaysian Government. The conference was disrupted by members of the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional Youth Wing who blamed the organisers for spoiling the good relations between Indonesia and Malaysia. Police arrested 59 participants, including foreign journalists, and most of the organisers, who were locked up for up to a week.

Despite all this, the Malaysian Government's conscience appears to be clear. Expressing the Malaysia's government's sentiment, political scientist Dr Lukman Thaib of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia says that East Timorese leaders were given the opportunity to understand Malaysia's position during their February visit.

"It was not morally proper to support the East Timorese struggle at the expense of the non-interference policy until the outcome of the 1999 referendum which showed the real intention of the people,'' he argues.

Furthermore, it is said that Malaysia's policy on East Timor has never changed.
"We have always supported Indonesia when East Timor was its territory and now, when it has ceased to be. We have always been consistent with our policy,'' says Kamal Ismaun, under secretary for South-East Asia and South Pacific Division at Wisma Putra.

The rationalisation now is that since Indonesia has acceded to East Timor's wish to be an independent nation through the August 1999 referendum, Malaysia will accord East Timor the respect of an independent nation and recognise it as such.

Former Asean secretary-general Tan Sri Datuk Ajit Singh says that in East Timor's case, we should put the past behind, look ahead and try to help the fledgling nation get back on its feet.
"East Timor has gone through some very tragic events and it is time to rebuild it."

Indeed, Malaysia's response to East Timor since the referendum has been largely positive. It has promised technical aid as well as diplomatic and administrative assistance in reconstructing East Timor.

However, for many observers, such nationalistic rasionalisations are far from adequate. Not only do the wrong-doers of the past have to be brought to justice, but lessons have to be learnt from the East Timor experience.

Suaram spokesperson Elisabeth Wong says that it is time Asean takes a critical look at the policy of non-interference because it deflects questions of human rights violations. "Asean must take a stronger stand on issues of human rights abuses. It must respond to calls for help by people in troubled areas within Asean.''

Parti Rakyat President Dr Syed Husin Ali calls for greater flexibility in the policy of non-interference. "The policy of non-interference is good in that it prevents conflict at government level, but it should not be taken to such an extreme at the cost of human lives. Asean should be flexible and tolerant of mutual criticisms.

"Raising issues of greater democratisation and giving its views to overcome problems and conflicts in another member country should not be seen as interference in the internal affairs of another country,'' he says.

However, Ajit Singh contends that Asean should still stand firm on its principle of non-interference. He believes that it is because of the principle that Asean has been able to avoid major conflicts among members and resolve problems peacefully for the last 32 years.
"Lately, it has come under close scrutiny as a result of what happened in East Timor, Kosovo and other parts of Africa. But in my opinion, the principle should still stand,'' he says.

Ajit Singh, however, concedes that if there are violations of human rights in a certain member country, it is within one's right to comment and bring to the attention of the international community and try to help. "But it must not be done by commenting negatively,'' he says.

Dr Khoo Boo Teik of Universiti Sains Malaysia agrees that it is very difficult for neighbouring countries to continually interfere in the affairs of each member country. Alternatively, he says, Asean could allow citizen groups, NGOs, and peoples' initiatives to carry out networking and create solidarity among member countries in voicing out concerns of human right abuses and similar issues.

Says Khoo: "The question is, would Asean make a commitment to allow for more democratic space and solidarity among its people?''

While Asean is still a long way from having an actual clause on human rights, leaders from the Philippines and Thailand have spoken out for greater democratic space and awareness of human rights issues among member countries.

Indonesia has since adopted a more democratic approach and has a greater awareness on human rights with Abdurrahman Wahid's government which was elected in a free and fair election. And deposed president Suharto is to be tried by the new government for alleged corruption during his 32 years of power.

The challenge now is for Asean to come to terms with lessons learnt from East Timor and adopt a more effective mechanism to address similar problems in future.

Published in The Star Malaysia May 9, 2000 (www.thestar.com.my)

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