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Indonesia: Asia's Yugoslavia?

By John R. Bolton

Political turmoil and instability; separatist demands; ethnic and religious clashes. These conditions in Indonesia today are eerily reminiscent of those in Yugoslavia in 1991-92.

In the former Yugoslavia, the dominant Serbs were willing to allow one portion, Slovenia, to secede relatively peacefully, in hopes of preserving unity for most of the rest -- unsuccessfully, as it turned out. The country's disintegration then provoked substantial outside interventions, initially by the United Nations, and later by Nato -- first into Bosnia, and now quite likely into Kosovo. Even today, the fate of the remaining rump Yugoslavia is uncertain.

Several Yugoslav factions saw advantage in internationalizing their conflict, calling in historical European allies and reinvigorating regional animosities. The United States deliberately deferred to the European Union's determination to solve this "local" problem. The Europeans failed utterly. Despite the subsequent renewed American involvement, the West nonetheless continued to address Yugoslavia's break-up in an unsuccessful, piecemeal fashion. And from this two lessons emerge. First, U.S. interests were not served by deferring to the EU and, second, almost no one's interests (except perhaps the Serbs') were served by the instalment approach.

Although worlds apart, does Yugoslavia provide any lessons for the contending factions within Indonesia, and especially for its government? And does it likewise provide lessons for interested international powers, especially the U.S.? Indonesia's January announcement that it could accept independence for East Timor seems unquestionably to have had the unintended consequence of bolstering separatist movements in Aceh and Irian Jaya. Dissatisfaction in those provinces stems largely from disputes with Jakarta about the allocation of economic returns from their natural resources. And while this might seem amenable to compromise, it could also lead to far more intense disputes. The risk of fiercer confrontation is exacerbated by Indonesia's economic turmoil, ethnic and sectarian strife, the continuing struggle for national political power and demands for greater democracy. To the military and other remaining power centres from Suharto's regime, these diverse pressures appear as an overall threat, and may provoke a predictable response. For now, however, even the key Indonesian players cannot clearly see the way forward.

In Indonesia's neighbourhood, there is nothing comparable to the EU, certainly not Asean. Australia obviously has critical interests, especially with respect to East Timor, and Portugal, a former colonial power, can claim a limited role. Most disturbingly, China could gain enormously from the confusion and disunity entailed by a long, painful disintegration of Indonesia.

For the United States, which has enormous interests in the region, the alternatives are perplexing. Inexplicably, until recently at least, the level of political attention paid to Indonesia in Washington has not matched the economic attention Indonesia receives there. While there is no tangible American interest in the ultimate political relationships of Indonesia's pieces -- central control, autonomy or independence -- this imbalance in focus must change. There is a critical American interest in the manner in which the political outcome in Indonesia occurs: That it not be through force by any party; further disrupt the regional (and global) economy; cause a massive humanitarian trauma or refugee flows; or allow mainland-Chinese adventurism to prosper. A piecemeal approach to Indonesia, as in Yugoslavia, almost guarantees that the process will be unacceptable, whatever the actual outcome.

The China question may be quite important for many American politicians, given recent revelations about Chinese espionage targeted against U.S. nuclear-weapons facilities. Although ethnic animosities in Indonesia do not coincide with separatist confrontations, they unquestionably exacerbate overall political and economic instability. The China factor also counsels against participation by the UN Security Council, politically or through "peacekeeping" forces in East Timor or elsewhere. Yugoslavia clearly proves that UN involvement is no panacea.

An earlier, more forward-leaning American involvement in Indonesia's crisis than in Yugoslavia does not require either a highly public, dominant U.S. role, displacing other powers; or that it have a predetermined outcome in mind. Nor does it dictate critically important operational matters, and thus, for now, it should be more of an attitude than a policy. Moreover, if Indonesians themselves do not desire civil peace, no outsider is going to impose it on them long-term, certainly not the U.S. Nonetheless, all of those interested -- in Indonesia and the region -- should understand that the American political passivity characteristic of the early days of Yugoslavia's disintegration must not recur here. Otherwise, down the road, the U.S. risks involvement (directly or indirectly) in multiple small conflicts, no one of which really affects its national interests, but all of which were rendered more likely by an initially passive role.

The writer is senior vice-president of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. He was assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs under President George Bush.

'China could gain enormously from the confusion and disunity entailed by a long, painful disintegration of Indonesia'

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