Chance of peace in East Timor

Agreement: Indonesia accepts referendum on autonomy but needs to halt violence.

April 28, 1999

A DEAL between Indonesian and Portuguese foreign ministers, brokered at the United Nations, may end two decades of repression on East Timor. Indonesia, the world's great crusader against colonialism for a half-century, is coming to grips with its own.

Under the agreement to be signed May 5, East Timor's people will decide by referendum if they want autonomy within Indonesia. If not, they will get independence.

Indonesia is a huge collection of islands that were colonies of the Netherlands. The small island of Timor was divided, however, with Portugal ruling the eastern half. Four centuries of cultural and religious differences had an effect. Its 800,000 people are different.

After Indonesia's independence was recognized in 1949, East Timor remained a colony until Portugal's revolution of 1974 set colonies on a path to independence. Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, annexing it the next year. With the exception of neighboring Australia, the world community did not recognize Indonesia's occupation.

For 23 years, East Timor rebels have fought off Indonesian colonialism. The 1996 Nobel Peace Prize went to two peaceful crusaders. But an army that ruled all Indonesia was not going to give up half a small island.

Since assuming Indonesia's presidency last May, B. J. Habibie has been attending to unfinished business before submitting to a parliamentary election June 7. With its other economic and political troubles, Indonesia can do without East Timor's anarchy.

All is not smooth, however. Since Mr. Habibie sought a settlement, pro-Jakarta militia members on East Timor have attacked opponents. Indonesian army complicity is known. Mr. Habibie must make the cease-fire genuine and the referendum honest, or Indonesia will not be free of East Timor.

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