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Truth-Telling at APEC

A MEETING of 18 countries that represent half of the world's GNP and 40 percent of its trade began Nov. 8 and will culminate in a summit Nov. 15 attended by President Clinton. The United States is looking vigorously across the Pacific in efforts to rev up its economy. The Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) is meeting now in Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world and an emerging Asian economic power.

The fledgling organization gathered for the first time last year in Seattle. The Clinton administration and US business leaders recognize the huge opportunities represented by closer economic ties to Asia and are pursuing them vigorously. But there's a topic some Asian countries aren't eager to discuss that the US must insist is part of this and future APEC meetings: human rights.

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Some argue that as these nations become more wealthy and develop strong middle classes, human rights will flourish of their own accord. Others doubt this kind of democratic determinism. At the least, lobbying from outside the region can promote a faster rate of democratization and greatly reduce human suffering.

By hosting APEC, Indonesia has put its own abysmal human rights record in the spotlight. It poses a test case of how high the US will place human rights on its international agenda. The Suharto government has generated economic growth, a rising standard of living, and political stability, and has been a reliable partner to the World Bank. In an economic sense, Indonesia has become an attractive investment opportunity.

But it also illegally and brutally invaded East Timor in 1975, massacring thousands of people, and continues its oppression there. The government shuts down news media that oppose it, including four magazines this year. It cracks down on peaceful protests against low wages and abominable working conditions for laborers. Since April, the military has conducted ``Operation Cleansing,'' which has been used not just to sweep away petty criminals but to silence any dissent.

Those who say APEC is only an economic forum and who want to save talk of human rights for elsewhere would have the US send a mixed message. The US should speak up now, during these early stages of APEC, about its concerns for human rights in Indonesia and the region. Waiting only makes this inevitable task harder.

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