The East Timor example

Turnout: Everyone votes when it was never allowed before and independence is the issue.

September 04, 1999

IN BALTIMORE, the politicians count on half the people not voting. Contrast that with East Timor, where almost all the eligible voters defied intimidation Monday to make their land's most basic decision.

It was a referendum to see if the people want autonomy within Indonesia. If so, they get it. If not, they'll get full independence.

Many observers wouldn't recommend that for half an island with 800,000 people, impoverished and wracked by war for 24 years. But the United Nations is supervising the election, and if independence is what the people want, independence they should get.

For four centuries, the Portuguese controlled East Timor while the Netherlands turned the rest of what is now Indonesia into a Dutch colony. When Indonesia won independence 50 years ago, the Portuguese colony remained a thorn in its side.

Revolution in 1974 took Portugal out of the colony business. East Timor did not win independence; it was abandoned. That was too big a temptation for the neighboring dictator Suharto to resist, so Indonesia invaded in 1975, ostensibly to prevent East Timor from going Communist. Former victims of colonialism make the worst colonialists. East Timor has been in rebellion since.

Indonesia itself is awaiting change, in which an election may or may not have chosen the successor to the interim president, B. J. Habibie.

But the world should hold Indonesia -- particularly, its army -- to respecting the will of East Timor's voters when the count is announced on Tuesday.

If East Timor did choose independence, it's easy to imagine the difficulties, which have begun, but Indonesia had it coming.

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