In the rugged coastal mountains just outside East Timor's capital, Dili, an army-inspired militia gang burned down the thatched huts of 10 families three weeks ago, leaving them with next to nothing. This attack, and others like it, was designed to force the villagers to oppose independence for the exquisitely beautiful region--a former Portuguese colony that has been controlled by Indonesia since it invaded in 1975. Somehow, the villagers managed to hide perhaps their most treasured possessions beneath rocks: their U.N.-issued voter registration cards for last Monday's referendum on the region's future.
It was determination like theirs that made the vote possible. Nearly 99 percent of those eligible participated; and they chose independence by an overwhelming 78.5 percent. Except for the killing of an East Timorese U.N. worker, the event itself was largely peaceful.
That fortitude, which I have admired on several visits to East Timor since 1995, was not enough to counter the terror by anti-independence groups--factions of the army as well as paramilitaries--that preceded the balloting. And in the days since the vote, the terror resumed and appeared to be getting worse yesterday, when the results were announced. What made the difference on election day was international pressure, which must continue if the vote is to have any lasting effect.
I had a sense of how forceful external pressure could be one evening last March near the waterfront in Dili. Outside the modest chapel and residence of Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for defending the rights of his people, there was a strange calm. Ever since it occupied the New Jersey-sized territory, the Indonesian army has maintained a constant presence. But that night, the army was nowhere to be seen. Even the local informers who usually thronged the area had taken the night off. For a few hours at least, Dili seemed like a tropical paradise. What caused this brief calm? I later learned that a senior Indonesian diplomat had just arrived to prepare for the visit of several high-level U.N. officials. Once the officials left, the trouble resumed. Indeed, the last few months have been among the most violent in at least 15 years.
I wanted to return to East Timor to witness the election. But because my recent biography of Belo includes a detailed account of the Indonesian military's strategy of deception and terror over the past 25 years, he encouraged me to stay away. It was possible, he said, that I could be a target of retaliation, or simply be prevented from entering Indonesia, as has happened to other reporters this year. And so I followed events from Washington.
Belo's warning reflects Jakarta's sensitivity to its international image. Indeed, international criticism by the media and nongovernmental organizations was what caused the Indonesian government to agree last winter to the referendum. With the Asian economic crisis having a profound effect on Indonesia, President B.J. Habibie believed that his initiative on East Timor would win points with foreign donors. Then, just before the vote, the Clinton administration and several other NATO nations--as well as Japan and Australia--upped the ante with an implied threat to cut off billions of dollars in international loans to the Jakarta government unless the balloting proceeded unimpeded. The last-minute pressure worked: Until a day or two before the vote, according to Belo and other leaders of the Catholic Church here whom I have come to know and trust, the militias were spreading mayhem throughout the territory. But, as one priest said, news of increased foreign pressure on the government spread throughout the territory, giving people the courage to vote.
Just what are the militias? Elements of Indonesia's military remain adamantly opposed to Timorese independence, fearing that it would encourage separatism in other Indonesian islands. Small groups of local toughs, paid by the army, were loosely formed a few years ago. But after Habibie announced the vote in January, army elements stepped up the formation of the militias to attack pro-independence forces. During my visit in March, I learned that the militias are led by plainclothes Indonesian special forces as well as by Indonesian military forces that control East Timor's economy. Since then, international officials have told me that the upper ranks also include 70 Timorese who have been rewarded handsomely by the army and have much to lose if Indonesia were to withdraw from the region.
Cultivating divisions in East Timor has been a longtime Indonesian military strategy. When I was on a visit to Indonesia four years ago, an international official told me that the then-commander of the Indonesian military--who returned in recent months to help lead the operation against pro-independence forces--had warned, "We will use the Timorese to destroy the Timorese." The militias also include Indonesian and Timorese criminals and unemployed Timorese villagers forced by the army to take part. In fact, in an ironic twist, some Catholic missionaries maintain that some of those forced to join the militias may actually have cast their ballots for independence.
The militias aren't the only ones responsible for the violence. Families of Timorese members of the Indonesian police force in Dili told Catholic priests last week that the police were given the following orders by their commanders: "Let them [the militias] kill. We will show up once it is over." Still, just as the violence was kept in check by the Indonesian army during the election, it can be contained now. What is needed is the political will in Washington and elsewhere to apply further pressure on Jakarta.
Rarely has any people or nation endured so much before being allowed to vote on its future. In a struggle of more than two decades against the Indonesian army, an estimated 200,000 people--almost a third of East Timor's mid-1970s population--perished from the combined effects of the war. For much of the time that Indonesia--an important U.S. trading partner with more than 200 million people--has waged this war of subjugation, it has been supported with weapons and diplomatic backing by many NATO nations. In the days leading up to the 1975 invasion, then-President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were toasting Indonesian President Suharto in Jakarta.
Such uncritical support set a pattern in which the Indonesian military believed that its actions in East Timor would have few real consequences, and this confidence remained largely unchanged until this spring. For instance, in February, when Bishop Belo sent word to a leading U.S. clergyman of mounting militia assaults on rural communities and stressed the need for more American pressure on Indonesia's army, a senior administration official brushed aside the request, the clergyman told me. "There has been enough pressure on Indonesia for the moment," the official responded.
Indeed, international influence was not strong enough, and the consequences were gruesome. Church authorities say that 3,000 to 5,000 people, primarily young supporters of independence, have been killed in the past eight months. In fact, the proportion of the population killed in that time may rival the proportion slaughtered in recent months in Kosovo, where, from a population of 2 million, an estimated 11,000 have lost their lives.
To its credit, Washington finally responded. President Clinton sent a letter to Habibie warning that Indonesia's relations with the United States would suffer badly if there was widespread violence during the vote, which seemed the likeliest outcome last weekend. Still, I believe Clinton could have done much more. That's a sentiment shared by others who know East Timor well, one of whom suggests that Clinton should make his letter to Habibie public and take even stronger action to make clear to Jakarta that the violence must end once and for all.
The need for such tough messages has only increased in the past week. After the vote, thousands of Timorese fled their homes, fearing reprisals by militias that had repeatedly vowed to kill those who chose independence. Late last week, as the militias' reign of terror intensified--with dozens killed amid increasing threats to East Timorese and foreign observers--there were rising calls for international peacekeeping forces to control the violence. If pressure from key nations subsides, the Indonesian army elements who have created and directed the militias will resume their rampage.
The peaceful balloting shows what is possible when Indonesia's international allies make a concerted effort. I can't help but think that the fate of the people who lost everything but managed to keep their voting cards, and many thousands like them, may hinge on this. One observer in Dili told me after the vote that the success of that day "will just disappear like smoke in the sky" unless the world insists otherwise.
Arnold Kohen, a former investigative reporter at NBC News, is the author of "From the Place of the Dead: The Epic Struggles of Bishop Belo of East Timor" (St. Martin's Press).