East Timor Votes for Independence

After nearly a quarter of a century, the people of tiny, impoverished East Timor finally had the chance to say what future they wanted - independence, or staying a part of Indonesia. As a phenomenal 98.

East Timor Votes for Independence

After nearly a quarter of a century, the people of tiny, impoverished East Timor finally had the chance to say what future they wanted - independence, or staying a part of Indonesia. As a phenomenal 98.5 per cent of voters turned out, a top leader of the independence camp, Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos-Horta, cast his ballot from exile in Sydney, Australia, and watched history unfold on television. "I had tears in my eyes," he told Maclean's. "People just came out from everywhere, it was incredible."

And when the result was announced at the weekend, Timorese had voted overwhelmingly for independence, with 78.5 per cent in favour. But the joy for many was tempered by a deadly new round of violence by machete-wielding anti-separation militias. Some Western officials believed the Indonesian military and police, widely seen as the main support for the militias, would provoke a final, bloody outbreak of terror before pulling out. Indonesian soldiers invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975 after a leftist force declared independence, and many brass clearly opposed the decision by newly democratizing Jakarta this year to let East Timor go its own way. "Everyone is very scared and they are fleeing to the mountains and hiding to avoid retaliation and revenge from the militias," said one human rights worker too frightened to let his name be used.

The violence reached a crescendo on Sept. 1 as UN officials supervising the vote began opening ballot boxes brought under heavy guard by helicopter to its headquarters in Dili, the capital. A rampage by pro-Indonesian militias and a pitched battle with a gang of independence supporters outside the walled UN compound left at least five people dead, while nearby police stayed away for about 30 minutes. Two UN workers were killed in an outlying town the next day. In response to furious international demands to restore order, Jakarta sent in about 1,400 more troops to add to the 20,000 it already has in the province. But after the vote result was announced, there were more reports of killings in outlying areas amid high tension in Dili.

Yet stopping the violence will be just the first task facing East Timor as it rebuilds after 25 years of warfare and deprivation. Part of an island lying about 600 km north of Australia, it is a sadly poor place where goats graze the streets of Dili and the illiteracy rate stands at more than 60 per cent. Per capita economic output is about $225 a year, less than Bangladesh's.

The top economic priority will be to get agricultural production back on its feet. Transportation problems have made it difficult to get the important coffee harvest to market. There is not enough access to water: many villages have no wells and there is very little irrigation. But as a senior development official pointed out, some well-spent money to fix roads and improve water distribution could quickly raise the standard of living. Much of that aid would have to come from foreign donors such as Canada, which is spending about $4 million this year.

Independence leaders like Ramos-Horta, who was co-winner of the Nobel in 1996 with local bishop Carlos Belo, believe the future will be much brighter without Indonesia. "They have left a legacy of underdevelopment and corruption and violence," he said. He held out hopes for offshore oil and gas reserves, although skeptics note they are in very deep water, making development expensive.

In the wake of the renewed violence, there were more calls for a UN peacekeeping force. But that couldn't occur, top Indonesian officials maintained, until the parliament in Jakarta ratifies the vote results in November. A new nation in Timor could have a bloody birth.

Maclean's September 13, 1999