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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

East Timor on Precipice

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- 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 UN-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 one of 15 international observers from the Carter Center deployed throughout the region. On the eve of the election, at a Mass of reconciliation, I sat in a small, crowded church in the town of Suai with a congregation both pro- and anti-independence. East Timor's spiritual leader, Catholic Bishop Carlos Belo, proclaimed the readiness of the Timorese to form a "new family." 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.

The United Nations assigned me and several other observers to monitor developments in the district of Kovalima on the south coast, near the West Timor border. Since early March, Kovalima and particularly Suai had been the site of increasing violence, and apprehension grew as election day approached. Fearing 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. 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 clutching their registration and identity papers. Some had camped there overnight.

It's telling that so many polling centers were in schools. Since 1975, when the Indonesian government invaded and annexed East Timor, literacy had risen from less than 2 percent to more than 50 percent. Although the local language, Tetun, is widely used, the first language of most East Timorese is Indonesian. It is indeed a lingua franca.

Ironically, the Indonesian language has given the East Timorese, whose local languages number more than a dozen, a senseof unity that 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 most adamant about rejecting autonomy for independence. They formulate their opposition as a rejection not of Indonesia but of the Indonesian military.

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

The military has found itself involved so deeply in East Timor that it's been unable to disentangle itself 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 is a demonstration of the military's anger and frustration at the overwhelming popular vote against it.

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 UN 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 it will withdraw 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.

James J. Fox is director of the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University. He contributed this comment to The Washington Post.