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Why can't the tyrants let go?

GeneraL Wiranto, de facto ruler of Indonesia, applied in East Timor the lesson taught by Serbia's Milosevic in Kosovo: Murder, loot, burn, and expel the resistant population. Then allow the international community to come in to police the graveyard.

East Timor, unlike Kosovo, is not a breakaway province, but a territory invaded after receiving its independence from Portugal in 1975.

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But never mind the technicalities. Along with Chechnya and Dagestan, whose insurrectionists have apparently taken their war for independence to Moscow with terrorist bombings of apartment houses, East Timor represents another display of the centripetal forces of disintegration that seem to be the hallmark of the post-cold-war world.

It is as William Butler Yeats wrote, "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world ..."

Why can't the tyrants let go of the relatively small slivers of territory and avoid the sanctions, and sometimes bombing, visited upon them by an outraged world?

In Indonesia, President Habibie appeared ready to let go of East Timor after a referendum that overwhelmingly favored independence. He was brushed aside by armed forces General Wiranto until his Army and militias had almost completed their bloody work.

What does East Timor, with its population of 800,000 before the expulsion, mean in a sprawling chain of 13,000 islands and more than 200 million people?

Indeed, what do Chechnya and Dagestan mean to President Yeltsin's regime at a time when Russia faces overlapping crises of insolvency and corruption? The answer is: fear of the precedent that may be set. From Sumatra to Irian Jaya (formerly New Guinea) there are ethnic groups dreaming of being freed from the tyranny of the Javanese. In the Russian federation, there are regional leaders pondering the advantages of getting Moscow off their backs.

And Western leaders fumble for answers. Or, as Yeats said, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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