What does the fate of a small island in the Pacific Ocean have to do with the conflict in Kashmir? If the island is East Timor, the answer is everything and nothing, with the Indian and Pakistani governments apparently unable to address the fate of the Indonesian occupied territory without looking at it through the prism of their own battles.
No sooner had the UN-authorised intervention in East Timor, which led to the landing of Australian-led troops on 20 September, been carried out than it turned into a political football for India and Pakistan. The latter was quick to draw parallels between the crises in East Timor and Kashmir, while India, along with a range of Western powers, sought to downplay any such comparison.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz made the most ambitious effort to pair the two situations in a speech to the UN General Assembly on 22 September, in which he praised the East Timor intervention. What the world had learnt from the East Timor and Kosovo crises, he argued, was that “a people’s aspiration for freedom cannot be suppressed indefinitely; a free exercise of the right of self-determination is invaluable for peace; self-determination can best be exercised in an environment free of fear and coercion; (and) the United Nations is best placed to oversee the exercise of self-determination.”
Aziz went on to note that “these conclusions were already accepted for Kashmir 50 years ago”. Just as the UN intervened to allow the Timorese to decide their fate in the 30 August referendum, Aziz implied, so too must nations intervene to allow Kashmiris to determine their national status. “Human rights must be upheld, not only in Kosovo and Timor, but also in Kashmir,” he argued.
That was a plea readily echoed by Kashmiri separatists. The Kashmiri American Council, in a recent lecture, drew parallels between Indonesia’s 24-year occupation of East Timor and the Kashmir dispute. The central principle, the group asserted, was that the UN had pushed for the right to self-determination — a key point for Kashmiris who have wanted the UN to prod India to hold a plebiscite on Kashmir’s status, in accordance with the 1948 UN Security Council resolutions on Kashmir. (The resolutions asked for a complete withdrawal of Pakistani troops from the territory of Jammu and Kashmir, while enjoining that India withdraw the bulk of its forces before a plebiscite was held under UN supervision. India made a guarded acceptance of the proposal but Pakistan did not, leading to a series of unsuccessful attempt at mediation by the UN.)
But the idea of a parallel as broached by Pakistan was quickly shot down for one, by Foggy Bottom. “Kashmir is not East Timor,” US State Department spokesman James Rubin said, urging anyone who would make that comparison “not to get trapped into facile analogies that don’t apply”.
Why doesn’t the comparison apply? For Antonio Monteiro, UN ambassador for Portugal—East Timor’s former colonial power —the answer is simple: Kashmir is a disputed territory internationally, while East Timor’s status was never in dispute. “Indonesia’s annexation [of East Timor in 1976] was never recognised by the UN,” Monteiro noted, which means that Portugal was, and continues to be, recognised as the “administering power” of East Timor, even after 24 years of Indonesian occupation. By contrast, Kashmir is a disputed territory, with no clear administering power ever established.
Of course, there is another reason as well. Indonesia remains a quasi-authoritarian state following Suharto’s fall, with the military still hovering ominously over the country’s democratic transition. Moreover, due to its precarious financial situation since the Asian financial crisis, Jakarta can do little to prevent countries like Portugal and Australia rallying support for East Timor.
In contrast, few world powers would want to meddle with India’s ‘thriving’ democracy and ‘promising’ economy for the sake of Kashmir, any more than they would want UN involvement in Belfast, or in Chiapas. So India, for the moment at least, has little to worry about in terms of East Timor setting a precedent. But that hasn’t stopped South Block from rebuffing requests for Indian participation in the Australian-led peacekeeping force fearing precisely such an antecedent.
On the other hand, Pakistan has smelt a fresh opportunity and agreed to provide Pakistani troops for the East Timor force, its optimism undimmed by its lack of success so far in linking the tiny Pacific island to the lush Himalayan valley.