The East Timorese have voted for independence. Twenty-four years after the Indonesian military invaded the former Portuguese territory and forcibly annexed it to their state, the people of the province have been given the opportunity to choose their own destiny. Despite intimidation and what appears to have been a systematic and massive campaign of violence, they have chosen independence. President B.J. Habibie has called upon the Indonesian people to respect the results. His plea must be backed up by action: The Indonesian government must do whatever it can to ensure that peace and stability return to the province. It promises to be a difficult assignment, one that will require help from the rest of the world.

Since the government announced earlier this year that it would hold a referendum on the province’s future, proindependence and pro-Indonesian groups have clashed. By all appearances, the pro-Indonesian forces enjoyed the support of the Indonesian establishment. Security forces ignored violence occurring in their presence when the perpetrators were the anti-independence militias. Yet their efforts to destabilize the province and delay or cancel the election failed. Registration was slowed, but it eventually went ahead.

Despite this atmosphere of fear, 98.6 percent of registered voters turned out last week to cast their ballots. The results are clear: Seventy-eight percent voted for independence, 22 percent for autonomy as a part of Indonesia. The margin of the vote makes protests about its fairness untenable.

Unfortunately, there are no signs that the pro-Indonesia forces have given up hope of changing the outcome. The governor of the province said that his militia group would never accept independence. Violence resumed as soon as the polling ended. The United Nations Mission in East Timor, which oversaw the election, said at least four of its workers were killed last week and six are missing. After the results were announced, there was a surge in violence, prompting Mr. Habibie’s call for peace and the dispatch of two battalions of crack troops to police the area.

It may be too late. The Indonesian government and Ms. Megawati Sukarnoputri, the opposition leader whose party won June’s parliamentary election and is the leading candidate to become president, promised to respect the referendum results. The militias, on the other hand, have not. Although their backers in the establishment appear to have lost the stomach to fight, the pro-Indonesia groups have not slackened.

There is speculation that the militias have changed strategy. They are now apparently focusing on territory in the west, hoping to drive independence supporters out of the area and then to align with West Timor and stay in Indonesia. Several towns near the border have reportedly been seized by the militias.

There is time for a land grab. The referendum results must be confirmed by Indonesia’s legislature, but that will not meet until November. The security forces’ performance thus far gives no reason to have faith in their willingness to stop the militias. It is more likely that, having accepted defeat, they will wash their hands of the whole mess and leave it to the U.N., which is supposed to oversee the three-year transition to independence.

That means a peacekeeping — actually, peacemaking — force will be needed. Since any such force must be invited by the Indonesian government, that gives the anti-independence forces yet another opportunity to cause trouble. (The U.N. could act without a request from Jakarta, but the world body would be wary about taking such a step on its own, especially after the intervention in Kosovo. The debate would be time-consuming, when there is no time to waste.)

Around 200,000 East Timorese — a quarter of the population — are thought to have died of war, disease and famine since the original Indonesian invasion in 1975. Their struggle to control their own destiny has been long and lonely, as governments have, often for reasons of Realpolitik, sided with the invaders. The East Timorese never gave up, however, and their determination has been rewarded. Now the rest of the world must pitch in to make up for the previous shameful willingness to ignore the plight of the East Timorese.

There is much to do. Financial aid and material assistance are needed. Police and security personnel are required, as is the rest of the political infrastructure; the previous one was designed to exploit the territory for the government in Jakarta, not serve the native people. It is time those priorities were reversed. There is no time to lose.

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