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East Timor Sending Off Shock Waves

source: The Associated Press


JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) - A small territory at the end of the world, East Timor is sending shock waves through giant Indonesia and affecting global politics.

For years, East Timor was one of the world's forgotten conflicts, despite the massive human rights abuses in the region, just an hour's flight from Australia.

An Indonesian military marched into the province in 1975, setting off a bloodbath that killed more than 200,000 people over the next quarter-century.

Activists disappeared, fathers never returned from prison, and fear silenced the territory's people devoted to the Roman Catholic church.

Yet, the calls for help went largely unheeded until two East Timorese activists won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996.

Now, East Timor is getting worldwide attention, as its ramshackle homes are torched and its residents flee an area smaller than Vermont.

The fighting has raised questions about whether the United Nations, which never recognized Indonesia's seizure of the former Portuguese colony, can shepherd it to full nationhood.

Increasingly, the shock waves are felt across Indonesia, the world's fourth most-populous country and the guardian of key sea lanes into the Indian Ocean.

Though the violence in East Timor is unlikely to chase President B.J. Habibie from office before the next president is chosen in November, the crisis could leave the world's most populous Muslim nation without strong leadership at a critical time.

Habibie today canceled plans to attend a major summit meeting in New Zealand - perhaps recalling the absence of his predecessor, Suharto, from the country shortly before he was driven from office last year.

East Timor has been an economic drain on Indonesia, which has pumped in desperately needed money to build up its infrastructure.

In one of the few economic bright spots, the popular Starbucks coffee chain is among those using East Timorese beans.

Exports could grow further, if the lawlessness around plantations in Timor's central mountains is replaced by peace and stability.

Sales of organically grown Arabica beans to the United States and other Western countries are expected to bring in more than $20 million this year.

However, the huge oil and natural gas reserves in the Timor Gap area between East Timor and neighboring Australia are expected to form the backbone of the fledgling nation's income.

One worry is that East Timor could increase unrest in two other provinces of Indonesia, and eventually inspire secessionist movements elsewhere in the Pacific Rim.

Indonesia consists of 13,000 islands and hundreds of ethnic groups.

Jakarta's bungling of the East Timor crisis, which threatens to turn Indonesia into an international outcast, could also hamper the country's economic rebound.

The World Bank today warned Indonesia that a failure to resolve the chaos could threaten international donor aid pledged last July.

The crisis has also put the Clinton administration in the hot seat, as the world's only superpower and the country that would have to endorse - if not necessarily take part in - a U.N. peacekeeping force.

Clinton administration officials dispute suggestions by congressional Republicans that there is no direct U.S. interest.

State Department spokesman James Rubin cited the sea lanes and international commerce throughout the region as examples to the contrary.

``To the extent that East Timor affects the stability of Indonesia, it therefore affects those sea lanes,'' Rubin said. ``More importantly - or without grading it - there is a clear human rights component.