PLACES KEEP turning up demanding nationhood that most people have never heard of and could not locate on a map if their lives depended on it. Dominica, for instance. It's down in the Caribbean, it's got a population of 80,000 and it became independent last November. Good luck, Dominica. Then there's East Timor. It's half of an island in the Indonesian chain, its population is in the half-million range, and at least some people there have been struggling unsuccessfully for independence ever since the Portuguese, who'd been there four centuries, exited and the Indonesian army entered, to stay, in 1975. The "anti-imperialist" crowd at the United Nations has regularly pasted Indonesia for the takeover, and an energetic critic of American policy in Vietnam, Noam Chomsky, has adopted East Timor and criticized the American government for helping Indonesia consummate the deed.

Well, you may ask, why should Dominica become a nation when East Timor does not? For that matter, why not Biafra, Ukraine, Croatia and various othe places with claims to sovereignty no less weighty than those of the states that have repressed them? The list of peoples suffering from unrequitted nationalism is very long. There is no good reason for it; there is only the explanation of power. In East Timor's case, Indonesia had the power, and East Timor had neither the guns nor the friends-in-deed to compensate. This is altogether apart from the question of whether East Timor deserved, or deserves, nationhood on the merits. The 20th century has been notably unselective about passing on "the merits," whatever they are, of peoples asking for statehood.

Supporters of East Timor claim the Indonesians have killed 100,000 people, a sixth of the population. Until recently, the Indonesian government, by keeping the area closed, prevented any independent verification of these allegations. Now it is letting in foreign diplomats and saying it is ready to receive the International Committee of the Red Cross and foreign journalists. They should test Jakarta's openness. The question of statehood for East Timor may be on the shelf, but the treatment of the people who live in East Timor is something else: it is serious and immediate and needs to be addressed.