And Now, Kosovo East

Is this Kosovo all over again?

An ethnic people on a small territory stand up for their independence against an outside power that then lets loose armed thugs to kill at random and create a refugee wave.

Meanwhile, the UN Security Council dawdles about whether to intervene in the ensuing genocide for fear of offending China or Russia. And America, despite its immense powers, prefers that other countries near the crisis to take charge.

No, this is East Timor, a half-island whose global significance goes far beyond it size and backwater isolation in Southeast Asia.

On Aug. 30, the 800,000 people of East Timor voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia, touching off a killing wave that even has UN officials on the run. The vote confirmed a Timorese desire to end domination by the ethnic Javanese, who largely run Indonesia and led the 1975 invasion of East Timor.

Behind the slaughter are Java-based interests in Indonesia who see the country's outer islands as merely economic colonies to exploit.

And elements in the military see the independence vote as a precedent for other secession movements in a nation riven by ethnic differences, from stone-age tribes in Irian Jaya to Muslim radicals in Sumatra.

At the least, the crisis lays bare the hidden power of Indonesia's military, which fears an end to its lucrative power in society if a woman, Megawati Sukarnoputri, wins a vote in a national assembly on Nov. 10 to make her president. Ms. Megawati's party won June's legislative election, and the current president, B.J. Habibie, is scrambling to curry votes, especially from military members of the assembly, to keep his job.

Unlike Kosovo, East Timor has no NATO in the neighborhood to rescue it or to prevent genocide. Australia, whose northern coast lies close to East Timor, is poised to send in forces to stop the fighting, but lacks the international cover to make such intervention legitimate.

The West should threaten swift economic sanctions unless Indonesia quickly approves a UN-backed force in East Timor to finally let it be free.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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