Monday, May 21, 2018
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Tightrope act of a Pakistani diplomat

EAST TIMOR: A MEMOIR OF THE NEGOTIATIONS FOR INDEPENDENCE. By Jamsheed Marker. McFarland & Co. 228 pages. $29.95.

The island of Timor, a tiny speck in the Indonesian archipelago of 16,000 islands, has a split personality. The Dutch colonized the western part of the island and the rest of Indonesia in the early 17th century. About the same time, Portugal colonized the eastern half of the island.

The Dutch pulled out of Indonesia in 1949, but East Timor remained under Portuguese rule. In 1975, in the post-Salazar decolonization era, the Portuguese quit East Timor and left the island to a bloody civil strife between a small number who wanted to join Indonesia and others who wanted total independence.

Indonesia, with the tacit approval of the United States, invaded East Timor and annexed it, ostensibly to prevent the island from falling under the influence of the Soviet Union. Ever since, East Timor has been on the United Nation's list of unresolved smoldering issues.

In 1997, Kofi Anan, the new secretary general of the UN, committed to find a solution for East Timor. For the difficult process he asked the retired Pakistani diplomat Jamsheed Marker to spearhead the effort as his personal representative. This book is Mr. Marker's memoir of the negotiation to untangle the bloody mess that East Timor had become.

It is not a self-congratulatory book. Rather, it is an absorbing account of Mr. Marker's cautious walk through the minefields of conflicting interests, international intrigue, and general distrust between Indonesia, Portugal, and East Timor, the main principals in the conflict.

In the beginning the only foreseen solution, vehemently opposed by Indonesia, was to wrestle a measure of autonomy for East Timor within the framework of Indonesian sovereignty. However, in 1998 amid the Asian financial meltdown and the resultant political crisis in Indonesia, President Suharto was forced to resign. His successor, Bacharuddin Habibie, a diminutive man with a “zestful absence of modesty,” took Mr. Marker off-guard by hinting that Indonesia might consider the wishes of the people of East Timor for a final settlement. It was Mr. Marker's diplomatic genius to seize that opening and convince politicians and the top brass in Indonesia to go that route. The ongoing financial and political crisis in Indonesia helped him advance his argument in Jakarta. For Indonesia to hang on to East Timor at that juncture was like “polishing dinner silver on the Titanic.”

Mr. Marker pulled some powerful strings - the United States, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund - to prod Indonesia towards a vote on the future of East Timor. In a referendum in 1999, the people of East Timor in overwhelming majority decided to sever their ties with Jakarta.

The somber ceremony of lowering the Indonesian flag and hoisting the new East Timor flag in the capital Dili was attended also by the new Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose father, Sukarno, had invaded East Timor 25 years ago. After 300 years of subjugation by foreigners, East Timor was finally free.

This is a well-written book; the well-versed author uses historic and literary references to illustrate his journey on the perilous road. Each chapter begins with an appropriate excerpt to put the prevailing situation in perspective. He starts the book with a quotation from the Alexandrine Greek poet Cavafy: “When you start your journey to Ithaki, pray that the road you take will be a long one, full of adventure, full of things to learn.”

In the end, the consummate diplomat not only reaches his destination, but does so with flair and grace.

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a Toledo surgeon and columnist for The Blade.

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