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The East Timorese “Popular Consultation” was a house of cards from the start. After all, what sense did it make to think that the Indonesian national police force — only recently separated from the Indonesian army that had waged a brutal war on East Timor — would provide the security necessary for a campaign that could ultimately require its government to give up the conquests of that war? And what reasonable person would bet on those police controlling the newly formed pro-government militias they were widely assumed to have nurtured?

But Indonesia and Portugal had agreed to hold the vote. And since the U.N. has never recognized the validity of Indonesia’s 1975 invasion and subsequent takeover of the former Portuguese colony, it jumped at the opportunity to allow East Timor to decide its future.

I mulled over such improbabilities during the few days that came between the invitation to serve as a district election officer (DEO) in East Timor, and the day I shipped out to the Royal Australian Air Force Transit Camp in Darwin, Australia. I also thought of how my mother used to tell me that a person had to learn to be able to say “no” to a dare.

As the 400 DEOs awaited assignment, our options seemed divided between being sent to contend with the murderous militia or the mosquitoes — presumed to be malaria-bearing. When I was dispatched to the island’s easternmost province of Lautem, it appeared that I had drawn the bugs.

With East Timor’s independence movement silenced for nearly a quarter of a century, there was no scientific way to gauge the level of support, although Lautem was an area in which pro-independence Falintil guerrillas still existed. With perhaps 1,000 men under arms, the Falintil posed no serious military threat to the Indonesian army, but as its commander, Xanana Gusmao, recently released from jail, once put it, “To resist is to win.” And in Lautem province they still resisted.

East Timor’s voters were to be registered from scratch over a 22-day period, then asked to accept or reject the status of Special Autonomous Province within Indonesia. In consideration of the widespread illiteracy (68 percent in our subdistrict), a color-coded ballot was provided. If you wanted East Timor to remain part of Indonesia, you marked it near the red-and-white Indonesian flag; if you marked the blue, green and white of the new National Resistance Council of East Timor (CNRT) flag, you were voting for independence.

The campaign got off to an auspicious start in Lautem, with a joint pro-Indonesia/pro-independence kickoff event featuring both the bhopati, Jakarta’s provincial administrator, and the pro-independence liurai — the traditional “king.” The king was a bit of a character: When the independence movement opened a local office, the liurai presented the head of the U.N. delegation with a handwoven scarf, which the U.N. officer immediately donned, before someone pointed out to him that the scarf said, “Viva Falintil.”

The entire campaign went peacefully in the region, particularly in the area where I worked, Luro, a place that called National Geographic magazine to mind: Of the local villages, only the three in the flatlands were electrified. Most housing was in thatched huts, many of them on stilts.

After completing registration we were expected to conduct a voter-education campaign, which seemed like an excellent opportunity to visit some of the subvillages we had never seen. So we arranged with our translators to walk to two vertiginous hamlets that were inaccessible by car. We made the trek accompanied by the head of the village, who did it in flip-flops, until he blew one of them out and hiked the last half with one bare foot.

Finally our translators said something about being in the vicinity of Usufasu, but for some reason we kept on going, which I assumed meant we were at a crossroads and would return after visiting Sarelari, our other destination. But then we were told that we had arrived at Sarelari, and since there were no people or buildings in evidence there either, it seemed like an appropriate time to start asking questions.

It turned out that the Indonesian government had moved the entire population down to the main village of Barricafa, where we had started our climb; our translators had thought we wanted to see the locations, not the people.

From this experience I learned two things: Henceforth, before undertaking a hike to a mountain hamlet, I would ask if anyone actually lived there; more important, I had stumbled onto the results of a “strategic hamlet” program the Indonesian army had implemented to keep the population away from Falintil during the war. No doubt they had adapted the program from their American military mentors’ experience in Vietnam. The three unusually close flatland villages turned out to be a product of the same policy; their residents resettled on the main road for security purposes — the Indonesian government’s security, of course, not theirs.

My first encounter with the police proved a bit unnerving after I felt something poking me in the ribs from behind as I was checking out the house where I would ultimately live, and found it to be the barrel of one of the semiautomatic rifles they all carried. The police officer wasn’t pointing it at me; it was just dangling from his shoulder; he later asked if he could have my U.N. cap. Usually the police wanted to have their pictures taken with us.

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 liurai lay 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.

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