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East Timor has never fit comfortably within the sprawling archipelago that is Indonesia. The province was a Portuguese territory from the 17th century until 1975, when a socialist government in Lisbon abandoned the country’s colonial pretensions. That triggered a struggle for control of the region. The Frente Revolucionara do Timor Leste Independente (Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor) better known as Fretilin, won that fight, and on Nov. 28, 1975 declared East Timor’s independence. A week later, Indonesian soldiers invaded Dili, the capital, on the pretext of ending the violence. One year later, the government of then President Suharto unilaterally annexed the province. East Timor has been a blot on Indonesia’s international image ever since.

The United Nations has never recognized the annexation, considering Portugal to be still the administrative authority in East Timor. Other nations, such as the United States and Japan, have acquiesced to Jakarta’s grab for geopolitical reasons. Indonesia’s position astride the sea lanes and its influence in Southeast Asia have meant that its government was to be appeased. With this support, Indonesia has been able to fend off persistent and vocal criticism of its East Timor policies.

The criticism is well-deserved. It is estimated that 200,000 East Timorese — one-quarter of the population — have died as a result of fighting or other government policies designed to pacify the province. The U.N. secretary general has appointed a personal representative on East Timor, a U.N. special rapporteur has reported that there are credible allegations of torture in the province and the U.N. Commission on Human Rights has adopted resolutions expressing concern over the situation. Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo and Mr. Jose Ramos-Horta, both leaders of the Timorese, were awarded the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, for their efforts to find a political solution to the struggle for control of East Timor.

But the most influential East Timorese is Mr. Jose Alexandre Xanana Gusmao, the leader of the armed wing of Fretilin. A Jesuit-trained poet, Mr. Gusmao has led the movement since 1979, even though he has been imprisoned since 1992 on charges of plotting against the state and illegal possession of weapons. His initial sentence of life in prison was reduced to 20 years. Earlier this week, Mr. Gusmao was released to house arrest as part of an agreement to help spur talks between Portugal and Indonesia. His task will be helping to create a consensus in East Timor to support any agreement. It will be a challenge.

Reportedly, the outlines of an agreement have been reached, but the details have yet to be worked out. The chief sticking point is the say East Timorese will have in their future. The Portuguese insist on a popular referendum in which the people of the province decide their own future. The Jakarta government, concerned about nationwide elections scheduled for the summer, prefers another option. It has offered the province “special autonomy” that would give East Timor its own elections, legislature and party system.

There is a catch, however. If the offer is refused, the government of President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie has threatened to go to the Indonesian Parliament and let the province go free. That is more of a threat than a promise: The fear is that independence would trigger the same bloody struggle for power that followed the Portuguese withdrawal in 1975. No one wants to see that happen.

It is possible that the government is bluffing. Indonesia has more than 300 ethnic groups spread across its 17,000 islands. Calls for greater autonomy and independence have not been restricted to East Timor. The Parliament is currently debating a law that would parcel out more power and wealth to the provinces in an effort to quell the dissent.

A fractured Indonesia is in no one’s interest. It would be a source of instability and unrest at a time when the region least needs it. Even responsible Timorese leaders concede that they are not ready for independence. They would prefer to see a three-year period of autonomy with the option of claiming independence when they are better prepared. It is within their rights to ask for that; it is the obligation of the rest of the world — which has not been kind to the Timorese — to help them get it. For a start, nations such as Japan can assist the electoral process in Indonesia. They should follow that up with aid to the province that is no longer subject to the political constraints of the past. It is not too late to try to help make up for the injustices visited on the Timorese people.

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