But in most of East Timor, sporadic attacks on independence supporters were routine — in those provinces where they were allowed to campaign at all. And the campaign came to a bitter end even in relatively peaceful Lautem: Before the sun had set on its final day, the liurailay dead in his burning house in Lospalos, hacked by 10 or 20 machete blows. A U.N. civilian police officer, an American, had to go in and find the body; the Indonesian police couldn’t be bothered.
Yet the vote went forward, and there really wasn’t anyone calling for its delay. As an independence spokesman put it, postponement would only give the Indonesian government more time to kill Timorese. The 98.6 percent of the registrants who voted felt the same.
In retrospect, the violence following the election is less surprising than the fact that the vote happened at all. Is B.J. Habibie, the current interim president of Indonesia, something of a Gorbachev type, able to make his way up through an undemocratic system while actually having better things in mind?
And why did the pro-government militias, and their police and army sponsors, allow the vote to go forward? Did they actually think that their mix of intimidation — an anti-independence poster read, "Vote for autonomy and there will be no war in East Timor" — and petty bribery — rice and pro-government T-shirts, along with large (by local standards) amounts of cash given to village heads to buy the voters’ allegiance — would prove a winning combination?
If the pro-government, autonomy faction did think they could win this way, they were spectacularly wrong, as they garnered only 21.5 percent of the vote, and have now turned to Plan B — terror. Eleven days after the liurai’s murder, the Lautem District’s U.N. office was evacuated, the last one outside Dili.
Dark as things now look, the election can only mark a turning point for the better. The East Timorese people, who lost 10 percent of their population in World War II, and perhaps 20 percent as a result of the Indonesian invasion of 1975, are once again suffering greatly, but the effort has not been for naught. The myth of Indonesian legitimacy in East Timor is shattered — irrevocably.
The U.S. will ultimately have something to say about how long it takes the U.N. to get back into East Timor. Unfortunately, in the current atmosphere, the case of East Timor is likely to provoke discussion of how the U.S. should engage in more military actions, rather than fewer. But we would do well to remember the circumstances under which Indonesia invaded East Timor in the first place.
In 1975 the Suharto government claimed that the new East Timorese government was communist, and Washington was happy to look the other way as Indonesia invaded with an army whose weaponry had been provided by the U.S. — for defensive purposes, of course. Suharto was, after all, a proven communist-killer, with perhaps as many as half a million killed in his 1965 overthrow of Sukarno. So, with the U.S. having failed in its own effort in Vietnam, some may have thought that a real pro ought to be allowed another go at it.
The U.S. has immense economic power at its disposal, going beyond direct foreign aid to its influence on the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, its sway over other major economic powers like Japan, and ultimately to the control it generally chooses not to exert on American-based corporations. If the U.S. starts talking this language, it seems unlikely that an already financially crippled Indonesian government will ignore it for very long.