Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the 9,000-member international force in East Timor, composed of soldiers from 16 countries, including 5,000 from Australia, has secured control of more than 90 percent of East Timor, including main roads between towns and villages. But he said there is still a ways to go to pacify all of the newly independent territory. As a result, of the 240,000 East Timorese refugees who fled to western Timor, he noted, only 40,000 have trickled back.

During a luncheon with editors and reporters of The Washington Post yesterday, Downer said the Australian contingent will shrink to 1,700 when most of the Indonesian-backed militias that opposed independence seem to have disbanded or fled. Downer expressed hope that the Indonesian military will sever links with the militias, which he said are still active in some of the refugee camps.

Currently, 500 U.S. troops are part of the peacekeeping corps. Downer said Australia expects the Clinton administration and Congress to continue U.S. involvement. "We have only needed direct U.S. support. We did not ask the United States to come and solve the problem," the minister said. He recalled that Australian troops had come to the aid of American soldiers in Korea and Vietnam, and during efforts to weaken President Saddam Hussein in Iraq. "I don't think the United States can take up every cause, and we are satisfied with what they have done," he said.

He explained the commitment Australians feel toward helping the East Timorese, who during World War II assisted Australian soldiers in fighting the Japanese. "East Timorese died helping Australian soldiers, and the perception is that Australia owed East Timor," he said.

The Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975, when Australia's ambassador to Washington, Andrew Peacock, was foreign minister, did not go down well with Australians. Some Australian journalists were killed during the invasion, which kept the Australian media exercised over the issue, which was exacerbated later by massacres in Dili and the Santa Cruz cemetery, he said.

"A large number of people were killed and this created an absolute uproar in Australia, and then the ballot came and East Timorese opted for independence. Like Americans, Australians have deep democratic traditions. Then there was the thrashing and torching, and Australians were outraged and said the government should do something about it," the foreign minister explained.

Of course there has been a price to pay, with Indonesians accusing Australians of meddling in their internal affairs, molotov cocktails being hurled at the Australian embassy in Jakarta and bullets whizzing through the windows--and an increase in the sale of Australian flags that were subsequently burned by demonstrators. Australian diplomats under siege have kept a brave face, and after the 50th demonstration had a 50th demonstration party, he said.

On the bright side, Downer said the newly elected president of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid, has the opportunity to forge a democratic state. Australia's foreign minister said Gus Dur, as Wahid is called informally, is known to be a "liberal reformer, who has certainly shown a concern for human rights, for democracy, and I think he has the potential of becoming a very great president." Wahid has also exhibited tolerance toward the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, which will help the economy and bring back some of their capital. Seventy percent of Indonesia's wealth was owned by ethnic Chinese and a lot of it fled during the previous government.

Downer said there is a lot of resentment toward the military in Indonesia and ill feeling within the army over the demise of its standing. Wahid's government will have to tend to domestic issues such as separatist unrest, economic policy and reengagement with the International Monetary Fund, Downer predicted.

Latin American Jury Still Out on Free Market

Recapturing the confidence of ordinary citizens seems to be the litmus test for Latin America's leaders and financial managers betting on market economics and democratic policies in the Western Hemisphere. A group of 100 leaders from across the hemisphere, calling itself the Inter-American Dialogue, issued a report here yesterday saying that democracy and free markets are still on trial for most Latin Americans and that regional cooperation has waned.

Though Latin American leaders were urged to stick with market reforms, the report stressed the need for collecting more taxes from wealthy sectors of society, upgrading the quality of basic education, ending discrimination against women and minorities and being better prepared to shield the poor against natural disasters and economic crises.

Skepticism is growing, the report said, about whether democratic rule and market economic policies will "ever be able to satisfy the demands of Latin America's citizens for good government, steady economic advance, social justice and personal security." For the 1990s, average growth will not reach 3 percent per year, which is half the 6 percent the World Bank estimates is necessary to reduce poverty in the region, the report said.