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After 23 years, E. Timor takes a tense vote

Dionisio Fernando Soares was riding his bicycle cart through the desolate center of the provincial capital, in a vain attempt to hawk his drinks and sweets, when he spotted a bumper sticker on the pavement.

"Otonomi," it read - the slogan of pro-Indonesian proponents of autonomy for East Timor. Twenty-three years after Indonesia annexed this tiny half-island north of Australia, today East Timor chooses between autonomy within Indonesia and independence.

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Mr. Soares picked up the sticker and draped it over the front of his cart. "It's like a toll you pay for using the road," he says apologetically. "Unless I have this, they'll beat me up. But I will vote for independence."

Soares is far from alone in pretending support for autonomy. But many have little choice when facing a relentless terror campaign - waged by armed gangs and supported by the Indonesian military - that aims to convince East Timorese that their lives are at risk if they opt for independence. Over two decades, the deaths of some 200,000 TImorese at the hands of the military have bred a deep resentment against Indonesia.

Across East Timor, men and women sport new T-shirts and caps bearing the Indonesian flag, the pro-autonomy symbol used on the ballot. Many of the 450,000 voters are illiterate. Just outside the town of Aileu, in the highlands south of Dili, most farmers fly the Indonesian flag. "I don't have the option not to raise the flag," one says simply. "I'm forced to do it."

The military warns of civil war, arguing that whoever loses will attack the winners, although the jailed leader of the pro-independence movement, Xanana Gusmao, has pledged a general amnesty. The pro-Indonesian militias that control the streets in many towns tell the inhabitants that they will know how everyone voted, and kill all who opt for independence.

Yesterday representatives of both sides of the conflict once again pledged to lay down arms before the vote. But the militias demonstrated their might on the day election campaigning ended last week, killing at least five in Dili. Dozens have died in recent months and tens of thousands have fled their homes, particularly in the western part of East Timor.

Less than optimistic

The International Federation for East Timor Observer Project said in a statement last week that intimidation had been so widespread that "a free and fair vote cannot take place.... The playing field is extremely biased in favor of the pro-autonomy groups, as there are many areas of East Timor where pro-independence forces are not able to engage in public campaigning because of insufficient security."

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While IFETOP sprang from activists who favor independence for East Timor, neutral monitors and diplomats have reached similar conclusions. "The Indonesian Army, police, and civil officials have failed to intervene against or have actively participated in attacks on pro-independence support activities," said the Carter Center, based in Atlanta, Ga., which has a dozen monitors in East Timor.

"It all depends on how brave the East Timorese will be when they vote," concludes one Western diplomat in Dili.

Most people interviewed across East Timor seemed brave enough and full of trust in the UN, which organized the ballot. UN monitors are supposed to be present in every polling station, collect the ballots in Dili, and release only a nationwide tally so that the militias cannot act on the threat to attack villages for voting the "wrong" way.

"The majority will still vote for independence," says one Western nun, based in the East Timorese countryside. She asked not to be named for fear of retaliation from the militias. "I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of the militia don't vote for autonomy either. It's not a voluntary job. Each village had to offer members."

Her account, confirmed by many Timorese, supports the opinion of diplomats in Indonesia that the military has largely created the pro-autonomy lobby in East Timor as a counterweight to an overwhelming support for independence.

"Indonesia always presents East Timor as two sides fighting," another nun says. "But that's false."

That does not mean that autonomy could never have been acceptable. Only a year ago, Mr. Gusmao was calling for five to 15 years of autonomy followed by a referendum. His opponents rejected the referendum call but appeared open to compromise. Now they vow to fight if they lose, and many Timorese fear an upsurge on the island once the results are announced in early September. "It might have been so different if you could have discussed it, talked about the economy, for instance," one of the nuns says wistfully. "But it never got to that point. It all got emotional."

President B.J. Habibie embraced the proposal for autonomy shortly after he took over from former President Suharto in May of last year. But he grew convinced that it would be rejected. Irritated by the continuous stream of Western criticism of Indonesia over East Timor, he decided in January that a vote should be held this year. If his autonomy proposal were rejected, the country's highest legislative body would be asked to annul the East Timor annexation in November.

Mr. Habibie failed to consult the powerful military, however, which has lost at least 1,400 men since their invasion of East Timor, controlled much of the island's economy, and feared a domino effect of separatism across the diverse archipelago nation if East Timor broke off.

While some diplomats believe the military in East Timor is disobeying orders, most say chief commander General Wiranto himself is responsible for the way his troops have supported the terror campaign in East Timor.

Military's other battles

Publicly Wiranto has been supportive of the vote, and some observers recently began to believe that he had given up on East Timor and wanted to focus on Aceh, a restless region on the west end of the archipelago which is much more economically and strategically important to Indonesia.

In East Timor, there has been little evidence of a changed tactic though, and more of a change in style. Rather than actively supporting the militias, military and police stood idle last week as armed gangs attacked pro-independence activists and random civilians in towns such as Maliana and Suai. "If the military has decided to give up and focus on Aceh," one senior diplomat says, "that decision has not reached towns like Maliana. These guys are ... beyond the Army's control."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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