THE PRIZE OF self-determination for which East Timor has struggled for nearly 25 years may be slipping out of its grasp. Responsibility for such a bitter outcome would unquestionably fall on Indonesia, the colonial power. In the year since the veteran military strongman Suharto stepped down, Indonesian armed forces remaining in the island territory have either conspired with local pro-Indonesia militias to stymie Timorese choice or lost control to those same militias. Either way, the Timorese stand to be denied relief from an ordeal that unfolded in isolation and obscurity and took the lives of an estimated fifth (200,000) of the population over time.
It didn't seem to register with a lot of people everywhere that a Third World freedom- and independence-spouting country such as Indonesia could itself practice colonialism, the denouncing of which as practiced by others was at the core of its foreign policy. Nor did it register with a lot of Americans that an Asian regime regarded in Washington as a key regional ally in the Cold War struggle for human and democratic rights was itself routinely committing grievous abuses of the rights of the Timorese.
The evident strategy of those who would now keep East Timor an Indonesian colony is to spoil the process of "consultation" with the Timorese people that the United Nations is trying to organize in early August. This explains the harassment, violence, uprootings and killings that are reported from the island in these days.
The militias, representing Timorese loyal to the interests of the Indonesian intervention, are apparently the principal perpetrators. Army units, which have the obligation to maintain law and order, are standing aside -- a posture of disgrace for a professional military. If these conditions do not improve swiftly, then the chances for a valid act of self-determination that would put a foundation of legitimacy under the people's choice may dissolve.
In Indonesia proper, many people are distracted by the country's own coming elections, which would mark its first fair and free vote since 1955. The military commander, Gen. Wiranto, a possible presidential candidate, seems unsympathetic to Indonesia's Timor responsibilities, at the least.
Fortunately, the United Nations, which only gets the tough ones, is on the case. It is reminding Indonesians of their obligations to East Timor and organizing election observers and police advisers. But it has neither mandate nor -- thanks in part to Washington's default on its assessments -- money for the kind of broader peacekeeping mission that would constitute a more credible international presence in the face of the rampaging militias. Portugal, Timor's colonial master before Indonesia came on the scene, and neighboring Australia are paying into a fund for the would-be new nation. East Timor deserves a fair crack at independence.