A New Nation on Monday?

Asia is riddled with good and bad legacies from centuries of European colonialism. On Monday, voters in one former Portuguese colony in Southeast Asia will get a chance to reject their second colonial ruler. This one is Asian.

A referendum in tiny East Timor, a land of 800,000 people on half an island north of Australia, is expected to end a 24-year occupation that began with a brutal invasion by its giant neighbor, Indonesia.

If Indonesia allows a clean break for the Connecticut-size territory, a new nation will be born. Right now, that's still in doubt.

Motives for the 1975 invasion by then-President Suharto's military remain murky. But the harsh rule of the largely Muslim Indonesia over East Timor's Roman Catholic population - and a long war with pro-independence guerrillas - greatly diminished the stature of the world's fourth-most-populous nation.

Last January, a new Indonesian president, B.J. Habibie, surprised the world by opening a path for East Timor's independence. It was a courageous decision, especially since it helped fan separatist feelings in a few fringe areas of Indonesia.

But the move was driven in large part by a desperation to focus on a collapsed economy and a post-Suharto democracy without taking further foreign flak. Indonesia is in deep hock to the West and Japan, and will need more financial support.

Europe, more so than the US, can be credited for years of quiet pressure on Indonesia to give up East Timor. Too many American presidents have largely looked the other way from the human rights violations there because Suharto was a key cold-war ally.

Mr. Habibie has let the United Nations supervise Monday's referendum, which is really a vote on whether East Timor will accept merely greater autonomy. A "no" vote on that question, Habibie promises, means independence. A "no" victory is expected.

Still, some elements of the Indonesian military have backed local anti-independence militias, who may sabotage the ballot and also threaten to start a post-vote civil war in East Timor. Several thousand people have already been intimidated into fleeing their homes - and likely won't vote.

Washington should give Habibie and the Indonesian military a clear signal to curb such violence and gracefully relinquish control of the territory.

For nearly a quarter-century, East Timor has been a rallying cry for human rights activists. With freedom at hand, it needs one final expression of support.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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