The people of East Timor have been given the chance to choose their own destiny. Indonesian President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie decided last week to hold a referendum on independence in the province. On Aug. 8, East Timorese will vote for independence or autonomy within the Indonesian state under an election plan sponsored by the United Nations. It is an admirable attempt to right a wrong committed 24 years ago, but there is still enough time for the plan to go astray. Opponents of independence are sure to step up their efforts to derail the vote. It is up to the Jakarta government to see that Mr. Habibie’s pledge is honored: The people of East Timor deserve at least this.

In 1975, Indonesia’s armed forces invaded East Timor. The next year, Jakarta annexed the region as its 27th province without the consent of its people. The U.N. and most nations refused to recognize this acquisition by force. Those opposed to the move have waged a guerrilla war against the Indonesian government. Leaders of the independence movement have been jailed, intimidated and killed. Violence has been a staple of life in East Timor.

After the resignation of President Suharto last year, Mr. Habibie has been trying to bring more democracy to Indonesia and strengthen the rule of law. One cannot proceed without the other. The problem is that Mr. Habibie is opposed by powerful forces — many of whom are in the government and the armed forces — that are doing their utmost to frustrate him. In East Timor, they have dug in their heels.

East Timor is by no means united on the question of independence. The prospect of a referendum has galvanized many of the people who do not want to break ties with Indonesia. They have been abetted by like-minded people in the military and in the provincial government, who have turned a blind eye to violent attacks by pro-Indonesian militias. There are reports that the army armed and trained many of the militia groups. What is certain is that the authorities have refused to intervene and failed to disarm the militias, even though they have been on a rampage for weeks. Hundreds have died in the bloodshed, and there is no sign that the military has an inclination to stop them. Mr. Habibie has condemned the violence, but he seems powerless to stop it.

This week, Indonesia and Portugal, the former colonial ruler of East Timor, are scheduled to sign an agreement to hold the elections in August. That will make a referendum an international obligation. That should strengthen Mr. Habibie’s hand, but by itself it will not suffice — especially when the governor and military commander of the region have publicly expressed their opposition to the vote. International pressure must be brought to bear on the recalcitrants within the government and the armed forces. That is why the U.N. will dispatch advisers to try and make sure that the army and police provide protection for the election. Representatives from six countries — Japan, the United States, Australia, the Philippines, Germany and Britain — will also monitor the elections. More may be added before the poll.

More needs to be done; more can be done. With Indonesia suffering the greatest economic crisis in three decades, there is leverage, if skillfully applied, to backstop the democratic process. Japan, a key investor in and source of aid for Indonesia, has an opportunity to exercise regional leadership. It should make clear to the Indonesian government that there is no alternative to a free and fair vote. Similarly, the U.S., which has a close relationship with the Indonesian military, should bring every pressure to bear on the armed forces. For years, Washington has argued that those ties are needed to reinforce the military’s professionalism. Here, now, is a test.

While attention has been focused on the atrocities committed by the pro-Indonesian forces, independence-minded rebels are also a problem. The call to arms by rebel leader Jose “Xanana” Gusmao has inflamed an already volatile situation. Mr. Gusmao has since said that he was misunderstood: He was only warning his followers to defend themselves. His concern is justified, but his rash words were not.

Opponents of the vote are looking for any excuse to scuttle the election. The pro-independence forces must not give them one. At the same time, the government must disarm the militias. If armed forces resist, an international force should be considered — immediately. The situation in East Timor can deteriorate quickly, but that need not happen. The tragedy that begin 24 years ago could end this summer. It should.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.