TENS OF THOUSANDS of people from East Timor have been forced out of their homes and villages in an evident effort by Indonesian military and police elements to keep the territory from voting for independence. The effort casts a pall over what is otherwise a more hopeful scenario for political democracy and economic revival in a major Asian country.

East Timor, long a Portuguese colony, was nearing independence in the mid-1970s when it was grabbed by Indonesia, recolonized and brutally repressed. But the collapse of the Suharto regime last year reopened the door for a new East Timor bid for independence, under U.N. auspices. Nationalistic Indonesians are now trying to blunt this bid and keep East Timor under Indonesian lock and key.

The United Nations and member states, including the United States, have repeatedly urged Jakarta to halt its harassment of internally displaced people. Meanwhile, the United Nations, reluctant to slow down movement toward an August autonomy-or-independence choice by the East Timorese, has begun voter registration. Whether a vote will actually take place on Aug. 30 as now scheduled will depend on whether the U.N. finds Indonesians to be following through on their pledges of a fair and free ballot.

Indonesia is a country of consequence, strategically and economically. Its many American friends beam in anticipation of the restoration of its confidence and place in the world. With a bright future beckoning, why does the Indonesian establishment not resolve the costly, nagging East Timor question once and for all in a way that turns a burden into an opportunity and strengthens Indonesia's international and democratic standing at the same time?