ONLY INDONESIA can now prevent East Timor from spiraling down into another terrible civil war. Armed militias are rampaging in the wake of a U.N.-sponsored referendum on independence. Those militias were created and encouraged by Indonesia's military, eager for a proxy to fight against East Timor's separation. But Indonesia's international reputation now depends on its willingness to use its armed forces to disarm those militias, restore peace to East Timor and allow -- finally -- the people of that island to chart their own destiny.
East Timor is a former Portuguese colony, lying north of Australia and at the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago, that was violently recolonized by Indonesia in the mid-1970s. Many of its people have been resisting Indonesian rule ever since; some 200,000 are thought to have died in massacres or from war-induced famine and disease. For years, Indonesia deflected all international pressure to allow East Timor's surviving population of 800,000 or so to determine their own future. When the autocratic President Suharto was toppled from power last year, his successor, B. J. Habibie, acceded to a U.N. referendum. Now a majority has voted for independence, and Mr. Habibie must show that Indonesia's professed change of heart was not just a cynical ploy. His responsibility is especially grave since his government resisted so firmly any deployment of international peacekeeping troops.
Indonesia is in the midst of a transition of its own, from decades of dictatorship to, it is hoped, real democracy. The success of that transition, in one of the world's most populous nations, is of immense importance; Indonesia merits all the help it can get. But President Clinton, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and everyone else with some influence must make clear that Indonesia can get no help if it allows East Timor to go up in flames. An astonishing 98.6 percent of eligible voters in East Timor risked their lives to vote. Their courage and determination should not be betrayed.