East Timor is burning.
Armed gangs who have terrorized the Indonesian province in recent months have now torched scores of homes and are rounding up citizens. Yesterday, they laid siege to the residence of Bishop Carlos Belo, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, where an estimated 2,000 people had taken refuge.
"The situation in Dili is grim. It borders on anarchy," says United Nations spokesman Nick Birnback, from the besieged UN compound in the island's capital.
Increasingly, it appears that the Indonesian military and police are tacitly - if not actively - working with militia groups on a scorched-earth policy in the wake of a vote overwhelmingly in favor of independence this past week. If Indonesia can't have East Timor, pro-Jakarta forces apparently intend to leave it in ruins.
"The game had been to intimidate the people so you could pull the numbers [of voters for independence] down," one Western diplomat says. "The first strategy didn't work, so now they'll create as much chaos as possible while letting East Timor go. Maybe to set an example, maybe out of spite."
If the military is setting an example, as many observers say, it is primarily doing so with Aceh in mind. The Westernmost province of Indonesia's archipelago has been the scene of recent clashes between separatists and Indonesian armed forces. It may be concerned about other minorities in this diverse country, such as the Papua of Irian Jaya, who would like to break away as well.
The turmoil in Timor comes amid growing calls for UN peacekeeping forces to move in to restore order if the 10,000 Indonesian troops and 8,000 police won't. Yesterday the UN Security Council sent emissaries to Jakarta to encourage the government to abide by the UN covenant and maintain order during the six weeks before the parliament meets to ratify the independence vote. But UN troops won't be sent in without Indonesian approval and, so far, Indonesian officials say they will deal with the unrest.
Diplomats here trace the current situation to President B.J. Habibie's sudden decision last January to abandon Indonesia's position that its invasion of East Timor in 1975 had been legitimate and called a referendum. But he didn't consult the military first. And he insisted that the military and police remain in charge of security during the vote. The UN agreed, even though it knew by then that the military were supporting a terror campaign.
"Everybody has given in too much," one diplomat said. "They jumped on the referendum bandwagon."
Some diplomats say that the military, now being pushed out of politics following the removal of Gen. Suharto from office, are motivated by mere resentment.
They draw a connection to a series of ethnic and religious clashes that have wrecked other parts of Inodnesia in the past two years. Soldiers, mostly Muslim, sided with a Muslim minority in a clash with Christians on the Moluccan islands earlier this year, and failed to act when massive riots rocked the capital of Jakarta last year.
"Initially they wanted to create trouble to show they were still needed," the diplomat said. "Nothing they will do will prevent East Timor from becoming independent. But if they can't win it, they want to destroy it."
Across the former Portuguese colony just north of Australia, Timorese scrambled to flee their half island, just as they did when Indonesia first invaded.
"A campaign of forced deportation seems to be taking place with the Indonesian army and militias loading people onto trucks and sending them to West Timor," Mr. Birnback told the Associated Press.
The UN announced yesterday it would evacuate 198 staff, leaving only 84 expatriate staff and some 4,000 Timorese employees. Four local UN staff have been murdered and six are missing. The Dili headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross also came under attack.
Refugees were being rounded up by militias and Indonesia's armed forces, and many were being forcibly moved to West Timor, the UN said.
This is what the Timorese feared most when they mustered the courage to vote last week in a referendum, organized by the United Nations, which offered them the choice between expanded autonomy within Indonesia and independence.
In theory the vote offered a peaceful alternative to years of low-scale warfare between Indonesian troops and Timorese rebels, which had left Indonesia a pariah in the diplomatic world and a target of human rights activists. After the referendum, President Habibie promised to ask the country's highest legislative, the MPR or People's Consultative Assembly, to endorse the ballot by either approving autonomy for East Timor or annulling the 1976 annexation.
Rather than fostering peace, however, the referendum rallied pro-Indonesia militia to take up arms and unleash a terror campaign, designed to convince the 450,000 voters that autonomy was the safest option.
But the Timorese put their faith in the United Nations which organized the vote. A stunning 98.6 percent turned out and some 78.5 percent of these voted for independence.
But, after the vote, militia leaders quickly accused the UN of partiality and claimed an international conspiracy, and now target UN staff and western reporters.
Mr. Habibie accepted the results and ordered his troops to restore order. Additional Indonesian soldiers and police troops have arrived in recent days, but the newcomers did little to hinder the militia.
Worse, eyewitnesses say that the Indonesian police and Army were with a militia gang which attacked a UN mission in Liquica and shot a US citizen. Elsewhere, too, Timorese say the Indonesian forces are now openly collaborating in an all-out attack on their opponents.
UN officials would not comment on a leaked UN report from staff in Dili, accusing the Indonesian government and military of "an intention to create an impression of a conflict between East Timorese...." The Australian newspaper The Age quoted the document as saying that "what in fact happened was the implementation of an unprovoked attack strategy put into action by the authorities.''
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society