I won't forget Aug. 30, 1999. It was an extraordinary day, not only in the history of one small territory in the Indonesian archipelago, but because it marked the determination of yet another of the world's peoples to state its right to self-determination. The basic facts are familiar: Despite threats, intimidation and violence targeted against East Timor's 800,000 residents, more than 98 percent of voters went to the polls in a U.N.-sponsored election. By an overwhelming majority--78.5 percent--they rejected autonomy within Indonesia and instead took their first step toward independence.

I was in East Timor that day as a member of a Carter Center delegation of 15 international observers deployed throughout the region. On the eve of the election, at a Mass of reconciliation, I sat in a small, crowded church in the distant town of Suai with a mixed congregation, meaning both pro- and anti-independence supporters. I listened as East Timor's spiritual leader, Catholic Bishop Carlos Belo, proclaimed in the local language of Tetun the readiness of the Timorese to form a "new family." Later, an independence supporter explained to me that the phrase was a signal to choose independence. The new family would be the Timor Loro Sae: Timor of the Rising Sun. This idiom, with its hope of intimacy and protection, contrasted starkly with what was about to occur.

Along with several other Carter Center observers, I was assigned by the U.N. to monitor developments in the district of Kovalima on the south coast, near the border with western Timor. Since early March, Kovalima and particularly the town of Suai had been the site of increasingly violent acts, and the people were apprehensive as the polling day approached. Because they feared for their safety, more than 4,000 people had sought shelter in a field beside the Suai church, where pro-independence supporters had set up a small headquarters and dared to display portraits of their leader, Xanana Gusmao.

Courage and determination were apparent the next day as people prepared to vote. I arrived in the village of Kamanasa, just outside Suai, at 6 a.m., half an hour before the polling center would open. Already, five lines had formed, with perhaps 100 people patiently waiting in each, most of them clutching their registration and identity papers. Some had camped there the night before. Others had been waiting in line since dawn. There was an air of quiet seriousness.

We met an old man who, our U.N. colleagues told us, had earlier spoken of his fears about voting. Yet he arrived early with a large group from his village and then realized he had forgotten his identity card, without which he could not vote. So he set off for his village on foot, and when he returned several hours later, he was the very last person to vote at that polling center.

It is particularly telling that so many of the U.N. polling centers were located in schools. Since 1975, when the Indonesian government invaded and annexed East Timor, literacy there has risen from less than 2 percent to more than 50 percent. Although Tetun is widely used and has been promoted by the Catholic Church (in an overwhelmingly Catholic territory), it is not the first language of a majority of East Timorese. Indonesian is the lingua franca across East Timor.

Almost all members of our delegation spoke Indonesian, and we were able to use the language virtually everywhere. On an isolated rough mountain road where I stopped to look at a marvelous traditional house, a farmer who spoke near-perfect Indonesian invited me inside.

Ironically, the use of the Indonesian language has given the East Timorese, whose local languages number more than a dozen, a newfound sense of unity that has enabled them to assert their independence. Several days before the vote, I witnessed a huge pro-independence rally in Dili, East Timor's capital, made up almost entirely of young people. These Indonesian-educated East Timorese are the ones who are the most adamant about rejecting autonomy in favor of independence.

They formulate their opposition not as a rejection of Indonesia but as a rejection of the Indonesian military. The new family that they would form would be very different from the pre-invasion society. It would be one deeply influenced by their education as Indonesians.

For 24 years, Indonesia has pursued a policy of winning the minds of the East Timorese. But at the same time, the military was losing their hearts. A pro-independence leader in Suai told me that he thought the Indonesian government might have won the vote in his district had the military not embarked upon a campaign of brutal intimidation. That campaign made clear to everyone just what they had to reject.

The military's involvement in East Timor is so deep that it has found it impossible to disentangle itself in any orderly fashion, without humiliation. Since the invasion, there have been two lines of command from Jakarta to East Timor: one for the regular territorial army; the other, for special operations. This separate command has been linked to Kopassus, Indonesia's special forces unit and to army intelligence.

The army's dilemma is that it refuses to acknowledge openly that it has special forces in the region and that it cannot, dare not, or will not control them. Plainclothes military personnel therefore continue to direct the militia in purposeful mayhem. The program of wanton destruction, of killing and of mass evacuation of East Timorese to western Timor and elsewhere is a demonstration of the military's anger and frustration at the overwhelming popular vote against it. Such moves may also be intended to send a signal to other dissident regions.

In recent weeks, Suai has received as severe a punishment as any place in the region. After the Mass of reconciliation on the eve of the vote, Bishop Belo asked a militia leader to become an apostle of peace. The reconciliation at Suai was to be a model for the rest of East Timor. Instead, on Sept. 4, the day the election results were announced, the church in Suai--packed with terrified women and children--was attacked. In a massacre perpetrated by the military, three priests, two East Timorese and one from Java, were gunned down as they pleaded for the lives of those inside. The gunmen then fired randomly into the church with automatic weapons. As they left, they tossed three grenades inside.

Eventually, the full horror of the Suai massacre will come out; surely it will be included on the agenda of the international war crimes tribunal called for by Mary Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights. The possibility of that tribunal represents a genuine threat to the Indonesian military: It could offer justice to East Timor and a kind of liberation to the rest of Indonesia.

Developments in East Timor are now entering their most dangerous phase. Although the Indonesian military has indicated that it is withdrawing this weekend, rumors in Jakarta are that some units are prepared to stay and fight. Nationalist sentiment is sweeping the nation, and the arrival of the first international troops in what Indonesians still consider their territory is certain to ignite further hostilities. If U.N. forces are involved in serious clashes with Indonesian forces, already uncertain moves toward democratic reform would undoubtedly be threatened. A general here in Jakarta has proposed postponing the newly elected parliament, which is supposed to meet in November to choose a president. He recognizes that the new family of East Timor, though scattered and devastated, has the political potential to destabilize its parent nation.

James Fox is the director of the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University.