Intimidation failed in East Timor. Despite threats and violence, a stunning 98.6 percent of registered voters turned in ballots in Monday’s referendum on the territory’s future. Sadly, the peace on voting day was only a lull; violence resumed when the polls closed. Worse, it has become clear that the anti-independence militias operate with the approval, if not the connivance, of the Indonesian authorities. This is a violation of the terms of the referendum and of the Indonesian government’s international obligations. The violence must stop and the voting results must be respected.
During the runup to the ballot, pro- and anti-independence forces repeatedly clashed. The number of people killed and wounded is in the hundreds. Thousands fled their homes. It was widely reported — and vehemently denied by the government — that anti-independence militias enjoyed support from the military and the Indonesian establishment. After a brief pause for the vote, the violence resumed, and the suspicions have been confirmed.
Reportedly, four people have been killed since the vote. U.N. officials overseeing the referendum have condemned the government inaction and the descent into lawlessness. A civil war is likely if, as expected, the vote is for independence.
The intense international scrutiny that has been brought to bear is a testimony to the role the United Nations can play in such situations. If the U.N. had not been involved, then the election would not have been free or fair.
But it has also become clear that moral pressure alone will not move the Indonesian government. The U.N. must be ready to provide peacekeepers after the results are announced — no matter which way they go. Indonesian President B.J. Habibie said he would not accept such a force, but the military has said that it would. That is a positive step, but the world must be realistic: East Timor will not be a peaceful place. Peacekeepers will have to be peacemakers. That is the only way to deliver on the promise implicit in this week’s vote.
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