POSTSCRIPT / September 16, 1999 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Send only Asean forces to Timor

IN the spirit of bayanihan, of neighbors helping one another, we strongly suggest that instead of sending United Nations peace-keeping troops to East Timor, only ASEAN members be asked to contribute police forces to help restore order on that bloodied island.

Indonesian President B.J. Habibie has announced willingness to welcome a UN peace-keeping force. Instead of using UN troops with a core from some of the Big Powers, the Association of Southeast Nations should muster a police force from its members and demonstrate its capacity to solve its own problems.

The stage has been set in East Timor for ASEAN to prove itself. We are confident that, with Indonesia cooperating in good faith, the regional association can restore order in East Timor and thus open it to badly needed humanitarian assistance from the rest of the world.

Let bayanihan in!

* * *

THE popular thing to do in the East Timor case is to lambaste Indonesia for the violent turn of events in that former Portuguese colony teetering on self-rule at the eastern fringe of Indonesia.

The general perception is that the roving bands of militia who attack, sometimes kill, people suspected of favoring an independent Timorese state are nothing but civilian agents of the Indonesian military taking orders from Jakarta.

The East Timor civil strife is of highest concern to Filipinos because Indonesia is our immediate neighbor. Any instability in that part of the region is sure to affect us in many ways. Besides, the spate of violence has threatened the safety of Filipinos on the island.

* * *

A SIMPLISTIC approach suggests that we denounce the violence, ask the Jakarta government to rein in the paramilitary gangs slaughtering innocent civilians, and insist on the recognition of the recent referendum held under UN auspices where the natives voted for independence.

Malacañang itself initially appeared poised to take this line of least resistance, until Foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon Jr. made a mellow, conciliatory statement that seemed to give Indonesia the benefit of the doubt.

Siazon may have prevailed over the hawks in convincing President Estrada to take a more moderate position in relation to Jakarta. We welcome this voice of moderation now coming from the Estrada administration.

* * *

ONE reason for this attitude is that we face a problem similar to that of Indonesia, the Muslim separatist movement in Mindanao-Sulu.

What if a potent group such as the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), the Arab bloc which regards with fraternal concern our brother Muslims, agitates for a East Timor-like referendum in the South?

If such a poll were to be held tomorrow, it would register sure defeat for a separatist vote for the simple reason that the Muslims are a minority even in their supposed bailiwick.

* * *

BUT winning the first referendum is not the point. Once a political referendum is held, there will be no stopping similar polls in the future.

The recurring referendums may mean repeated defeat for separatists, but the polls will keep the separatist idea smoldering in the hearts of minorities harboring grievances against the central government and the ruling majority.

While we support the general principle of self-determination, we cannot maintain double standards for the people of East Timor longing for independence and our own Muslim minority yearning for their separate political identity.

This is not to say that our position on Muslim separatist moves stands on shaky legs. We’re only saying that it requires pragmatism and an astute handling of the geopolitics involved.

* * *

THERE is another reason why Manila should not go overboard in joining the global chorus chastising Jakarta for the violence on East Timor.

We have been not only a good neighbor to Indonesia, but also a racial twin brother, a fellow ASEAN founding member, and a beneficiary of Indonesian mediation in calming the occasionally explosive drift of Muslim affairs in the South and other problems.

If we keep our cool and play our diplomatic cards well, we could be the perfect party to play a key role in straightening out the suddenly bloody twist that the Timorese vote of independence has taken.

* * *

IN ASEAN—which could provide a more effective mechanism for settling regional conflicts than the distant, lumbering United Nations—we are all committed to giving priority to pacific resolution of disputes.

One such peaceful avenue still open is the use of the good offices of third parties. If Manila maintains an outwardly objective position, the parties involved in the East Timor dispute may just seek the use of its good offices.

Such a development would bring invaluable dividends for President Estrada who has proceeded to South America after engaging in high-level politics in the APEC summit in Auckland, New Zealand, where the East Timor issue has cropped up.

* * *

THE issue of dual citizenship continues to heat up as readers write to consult us on their immigration problems. The most common queries are on the status of Filipinos who are also Americans by the fact of their having been born in the United States.

One reader confessed that she has been “in hiding,” meaning she has been hiding her dual citizenship on the mistaken belief that she was a legal leper and might just be clamped into jail if discovered to be carrying two passports.

Unfortunately, we are not an immigration lawyer. Our impulse is to advise them to consult the Bureau of Immigration and Deportation, but many of them express outright their “fear” of immigration officers, not to mention what they call the “expense” of having to deal with them.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 16, 1999)

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