It is important to attempt an understanding of Indonesia's worldview to prevent further bloodshed in East Timor and to stave off a chain reaction of rebellion and murderous response in other parts of that nation, where many of the 10,000 islands are now ready to follow East Timor's example.

Indonesia itself is a creature of colonialism and would never have existed in its present polyglot form without the arbitrary and dictatorial hand of a foreign master for more than 400 years. From its inception as an independent country, guided to freedom by Sukarno (one of this century's political geniuses), there has been constant fear by its political establishment that a country as vast and diverse as Indonesia could not in the long run survive as a single nation-state.

In a country where the majority of the citizens regard the national language -- bahasa indonesia -- as their second tongue, and where cultural differences between ethnic groups are perhaps more extreme than in any other country in the world, it seemed only a matter of time before centrifugal forces would atomize the fourth-largest country in the world, breaking it down into smaller entities, in some cases more minuscule than East Timor.

Above all else, the ruling elite of Indonesia fears geopolitical insecurity, especially real or imagined threats from "outside" forces. International communism was long held to be the number one peril. China, and by extension Indonesians of Chinese extraction, exemplified this danger and provided the basis for Suharto's rise to power and the orchestration of one of the century's most atrocious bloodbaths during the late 1960s, when more than 1 million people were slaughtered in Java and other islands.

For the next 30 years a skillfully administered blend of brutality and economic progress numbed the battered and naturally submissive Indonesian population into a profile of silence. Weakened by malnutrition and wearied by constant war -- Japanese, Dutch and then civil conflict -- Indonesia emerged from these hardships learning the wrong lessons and drawing the wrong conclusion: stability at any price.

Given the paranoid nature of Indonesia's worldview, it seems puzzling at first that Portugal's 400-year hold on East Timor was never questioned by Indonesia, even during Sukarno's most bellicose period, when he told the United States to "go to hell with your aid" and engaged in a continual "konfrontasi" with neighboring Malaysia. The truth was, though, that Indonesia was reassured by the longevity of Portuguese rule in this primitive, nonthreatening backwater, and with more pressing problems to deal with, simply forgot about it.

Then suddenly in 1975, Portugal vacated the colony in an almost overnight departure prompted by the replacement of the Salazar regime in Portugal by a Socialist government interested only in immediately divesting itself of its colonial shame -- with little thought to an orderly post-colonial transition.

In any event, Realpolitik dictated that Indonesia would fill the power vacuum that suddenly appeared in the eastern half of a small island in its midst. What would the United States do, Indonesians say, if half of Maine were suddenly vacated by a long-owning foreign power?

The pathologies of national pride and the practical need to find living space for a population bursting at the seams, ensured that once there, Indonesia would never willingly leave. Prosperity during the 1980s and a compulsion to put its name on a neglected territory prompted Indonesia to launch a veritable frenzy of development projects in East Timor: building schools, public health clinics, water supply systems and malaria eradication programs.

Whatever the motive, we must give the devil his due: Indonesians created in less than 20 years what Portugal had failed to prove in more than 400. In the process, Indonesia had hoped to "Tibetanize" East Timor, importing large numbers of Indonesian "transmigrants" from overpopulated islands in the archipelago, thereby diluting and eventually obliterating the indigenous Timorese population.

The bloodthirsty militia now murdering and laying waste to East Timor are not only military in disguise but also Indonesia transmigrants, hapless pawns brought to East Timor against their will but now fighting for survival against what they perceive as a hostile independence movement.

What can the international community learn from these recent events? In the present dilemma, paranoia and pride have caused Indonesia to paint itself into a corner from which there is no easy exit. Will East Timor be that long-awaited spark that will have a demonstration effect, moving other parts of Indonesia to rebellion? Irian Jaya, Sumatra, the Molukus and Sulawesi are areas rich in human and natural resources where sympathy for independence runs strong. It is even said that Indonesia's greatest national sin -- massive corruption at all levels -- would rapidly decline if smaller, more cohesive national identities were to evolve. The outcome of the present tragedy as well as Indonesia's future and the well-being of the Southeast Asian region will depend on an understanding of Indonesia's national mind-set.

The writer is a retired United Nations staff member who lived in Indonesia for many years.