United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has decided to delay the referendum on East Timor’s future status that had been scheduled for Aug. 8. The U.N.-administered ballot has been moved back two weeks because of fears that violence will make it impossible to prepare for the historic vote. Indonesian officials have questioned the decision; Mr. Jose Ramos Horta, the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize laureate from East Timor, backed the move. Delay is wise; sticking to the original schedule is pointless if the election is tainted. The real concern, however, is that East Timor’s fate may not be decided by its 800,000 residents, but by politicians and military officials in Jakarta.
Violence has escalated in East Timor since the Indonesian government agreed in January to hold the election. Killings and other acts of intimidation have been rife. The exact number of casualties is unknown, although the figure could run into the hundreds. Thousands more have been forced from their homes.
Most of the blame has fallen on anti-independence militias who are believed to enjoy the backing of the Indonesian military. Although the government claims that it has no connection to these groups, the failure to disarm them is damning evidence that they enjoy official support.
The U.N. plans to send 900 people to the province, including 270 civilian police and 50 military liaison officers, as well as hundreds of election officials and administrators. They should be able to help stabilize the situation so that registration and voting can proceed.
The problem is that East Timor’s fate rests with Jakarta. President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie has agreed to respect the results of the poll, but it is unclear whether his party and the military will follow his lead. Moreover, Ms. Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose party is leading in the elections for the national assembly, has said that she is against independence. Indonesia has signed an international agreement to abide by the decision of the East Timorese. The force of that argument is diminished by a simple fact: Indonesia has thwarted the will of the international community since 1975, when it unilaterally annexed the province. This complex dynamic is behind Mr. Annan’s careful decision to tread carefully in East Timor.
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