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East Timor Gets Ready For Independence Vote Monday

By David Lamb

After more than 33 years of tough Indonesian rule, the terrorized people of East Timor will go to the polls Monday to decide whether their impoverished province should become an independent nation or remain part of Indonesia.

Most political analysts believe that East Timor, a former Portuguese colony invaded by Indonesia in 1975 and annexed the next year despite international condemnation, will vote overwhelmingly in the U.N.-supervised plebiscite to become independent.

But there are no guarantees that the militias representing the two opposing camps -- those favoring independence and those who want continued association with Indonesia -- will respect the voters’ decision, raising the possibility that Indonesia’s 24th province could be engulfed once again by civil war.

“If East Timor becomes independent, it will become a sea of fire,” said Eurico Gujerres, the leader of one anti-independence militia.

With U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan having expressed dismay at the violence that has led up to the election, the Indonesian military has put warships and airplanes on standby in case an evacuation of Timorese civilians and foreigners is necessary. A sense of fear grips virtually every town and village.

About 1,000 people have been killed since President B.J. Habibie reversed Indonesian policy in January and offered East Timor independence or association with Indonesia with great autonomy, including its own flag and parliament. An additional 80,000 people have been uprooted from their homes, the United Nations says.

Leaders of the opposing militias met twice with U.N. and Indonesian officials in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, this month and agreed to try to prevent violence and to set up a 25-member Consultative Council to plan East Timor’s post-election future.

“There was an atmosphere of genuine goodwill,” a U.N. official who attended the meetings said. “But there is a disconnect between the militia leaders and local commanders on the ground. The militias don’t have a real command structure, and local commanders do pretty much want they want.”

Indeed, unruly bands of militia thugs, often armed with swords, spears and machetes, have terrorized neighborhoods and villages during the past month, hunting down and killing opponents, intimidating potential voters and threatening U.N. workers and journalists. On Thursday, one pro-independence militia ran amok in Dili, killing at least five people and wounding many more.

In addition to 600 unarmed U.N. police officers, pre- and post-election security is meant to be provided by 8,000 Indonesian police. But they are regarded by most here as incompetent, untrained and afraid of the militias. Indonesia also has 18,000 soldiers in East Timor, but they have made no attempt to protect the innocent and have stayed largely in their barracks.

Although Indonesia’s defense chief, Gen. Wiranto, has pledged that his soldiers will be neutral, the military has armed and advised anti-independence militias and is widely viewed as supporting Habibie’s autonomy offer.

Part of the reason is that the Indonesian army lost more than 10,000 soldiers during 24 years of sporadic warfare here, and commanders think giving East Timor independence would sully their honor and diminish their sacrifice. Some commanders also amassed large fortunes by controlling the local coffee industry until 1995.

Indonesia has been criticized throughout the world for its failure to curb pre-election violence, and there have been suggestions that if the elections are derailed by militia violence, international aid, including what remains of the $43 billion bailout package the International Monetary Fund put together two years ago, could be affected.

Scattered violence continued throughout the province Saturday, but Dili was mostly quiet. Many shops remained closed, and little traffic moved on the streets. On one, police set up a roadblock and frisked motorists and motorcyclists for weapons.

While the rest of Indonesia was a Dutch colony and is largely Muslim, East Timor was run by Portugal and is Roman Catholic. The overthrow of Lisbon’s right-wing dictatorship in 1974 led to East Timor’s sudden decolonization. In short order, the former colony was engulfed in a civil war that seemed likely to bring the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, a Marxist party, to power.

Indonesia’s anti-Communist president, Suharto, fearing that another Cuba was being born on his doorstep, sent his troops into Dili on Dec. 7, 1975. As many as 200,000 Timorese -- or one in four of the population -- have since died as a result of warfare and starvation.