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Despite the Chance of Violence East Timor Gets Ready for Vote

By Keith B. Richburg

After 300 years of Portuguese rule and a quarter century under Indonesian military occupation, the people of East Timor on Monday will finally be allowed to vote on their future. And most analysts believe that if voters are not scared away by militia violence, they will choose to become an independent nation.

But the threat of violence hung over the territory, despite a peace agreement announced earlier Sunday between the pro-independence guerrillas, known as Falintil, and the heavily armed militias, which have weapons and support from some in the Indonesian military who oppose East Timor’s separation.

Dili’s streets were largely deserted, shops were shuttered and heavily armed police set up checkpoints to search cars for weapons. The city was rife with rumors -- rumors that militiamen had moved into town overnight, rumors that attacks were imminent.

A tiny, impoverished Pacific island backwater, East Timor has for two decades remained a largely invisible problem -- closed off to journalists, and the scene of some of the world’s worst human rights abuses.

East Timor was one of the last victims of the Cold War, invaded by Indonesia in 1975, with a wink from the United States.

The pretext was that communists were about to turn the territory into “another Cuba” in the Pacific. The Vietnam War had just ended and America and Southeast Asia were afraid of a communist takeover of the entire region.

But the Timorese people’s struggle against giant Indonesia has over the years attracted some high-level sympathy. The United Nations passed regular resolutions about it, Nelson Mandela adopted it as a pet cause, Pope John Paul II came to visit, and two Timorese activists won a 1996 Nobel Peace Prize for their tireless campaigning against Indonesia’s heavy-handed rule.

Finally, with the fall of Suharto in May 1998, the international community saw an opportunity to resolve the long-running dispute. But Indonesia fears that if the Timorese vote for independence, it could ignite a chain of secessionist claims that could unravel the country.

In one of Dili’s poorest neighborhoods, called Becora, a pro-independence stronghold that has been the scene of militia violence, residents armed themselves after reports of a possible attack by the Aitarak militia.

The neighborhood has been on edge since a crowd recently beat a suspected pro-Indonesian militiaman, prompting fears of reprisals.

“We have rocks, sticks and our traditional weapons,” said Jose Amara, 21, who was guarding a corner with other young men, one of them with a large knife strapped around his chest. “We are not afraid, because all we want is independence. We are willing to die for it.”

Amara’s friend, Joao Carvalho, 40, said, “All the militia has been doing is trying to scare people. But they are not scared, because they are eager to go vote.”

In other Dili neighborhoods, people were eager to vote, but also girding themselves for danger.

“During the day, they go back to their houses, but at night, they go to the hills,” said Jorge Alvez, a local pro-independence activist in the Taibesi neighborhood.