Ballot Power

John Stanmeyer--Saba for TIME
SMOKING GUN: Joaquim Bernardino Guterres, 25, a pro-independence demonstrator armed only with a pair of rocks, flees Indonesian police on a Dili street; seconds later a policeman shoots and kills him (below).

As East Timor's long-suffering people vote on their future, they are powerless to answer the biggest question of all: Will the violence ever stop?

When a nation is born, joy is frequently accompanied by tragedy and chaos. East Timor took a step down the road to independence this week, as more than 400,000 Timorese readied their votes for a referendum on their future. But for all the hope and courage on display on this remote half-island in the Timor Sea, there is an equal measure of fear. Where they should be looking forward, many Timorese are instead mourning for their dead, and an atmosphere of intimidation is in evidence everywhere, from the most remote, upland villages to the open-air stalls of downtown Dili, East Timor's capital. "I need to choose what I want for my country," says a woman vendor as she arranges her scanty offerings of garlic, beans and jackfruit. "I'm only a simple person, but I do have rights." 

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At that moment, an aggressive stranger in a headscarf swaggers across the lane. He flashes his knife and starts to move on. Then comes an ominous thwack: the knife lodges in the wooden bench inches from where the vendor sits. She falls silent. 

In a microcosm, this is the struggle going on in East Timor. In Monday's referendum, the East Timorese, long-suppressed by overlords in distant Jakarta, are expressing their view on whether or not the territory is to remain a part of Indonesia. But whether their voice will be heard depends on factors beyond their control: those shuddering knives in downtown Dili; the taunting mobs with red-and-white headbands; the threatening displays of bayonets, sidearms and semi-automatic rifles throughout the villages. There are plenty of people who don't want East Timor to break away; some have been trying to frighten people into voting their way, or to skip the referendum altogether. The sense of fear reached a crescendo late last week: on the last two days of official campaigning, at least nine people were killed in the province. According to eyewitnesses, one of the victims, a 25-year-old man, was shot in the head last Thursday by a policeman, part of the Indonesian force called in to protect East Timorese ahead of the vote. Amid the violence, hundreds of people swarmed the piers Friday to fight for space on the last ferry out before the vote. Pro-independence leader Xanana Gusmão called for an armed peacekeeping force to take over, while the United Nations Security Council agreed to increase its unarmed police and military liaisons in the territory. 

Whether attempts to skew the referendum succeed won't be known until the results are released next week. On the eve of the poll, there was no shortage of Timorese who swore they would stare down the anti-independence forces and vote against Jakarta. "People are prepared to give everything they have for peace and freedom," says Ines Almeida, a political activist who returned from 23 years' exile in Australia to cast her ballot. "If we miss this opportunity, we will stay in hell forever." But even if pro-independence sentiments prevail at the ballot box, Timor's instability and tension aren't likely to simply disappear. Other, more sinister, promises were also being made last week, by people like Helio Caetano Moniz, a member of Live or Die with Indonesia, a militia based in the western part of East Timor. If the vote doesn't go for Indonesia, he warned: "Without a doubt, there is going to be a bloodbath." 

John Stanmeyer--Saba for TIME

For the moment, however, the bigger story is the rebirth of optimism, which had been nearly non-existent in East Timor. Before the fall of President Suharto in mid-1998, the province was in the iron grip of Jakarta. Suharto ordered the 1975 invasion that captured the territory--resulting in the deaths of some 200,000 civilians and up to 10,000 soldiers--though the resulting political union was never acknowledged by the U.N. or any country save neighboring Australia. Suharto poured billions of dollars of development funds into his new province, dispatched thousands of migrants to speed integration and posted soldiers and intelligence operatives throughout East Timor to deal with the frequently restive locals. Successor B.J. Habibie, however, took the opposite approach early in his presidential term, a move that won international praise. He gave the go-ahead for Monday's U.N.-sponsored referendum, which asks Timorese one simple question: whether or not they want their home to be an autonomous region of Indonesia. A "no" vote implies a preference for full independence. 

The choices are depicted with stark simplicity on the referendum ballot paper. At the top is a drawing of East Timor with the red-and-white flag of Indonesia; at the bottom, for a "no" vote, the image of the island bears the flag of the National Council of Timorese Resistance, an umbrella group of pro-independence organizations. Habibie says that if the East Timorese reject autonomy, he will start the constitutional process of granting it independence. Similarly, Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle won the largest number of parliamentary seats in June elections, has publicly grumbled about losing East Timor, but has pledged to grant independence if voters reject Indonesia's autonomy offer. 

John Stanmeyer--Saba for TIME

Many in East Timor wish to preserve the link with Jakarta. There are 18,000 civil servants, whose jobs would be at risk, as well as 50,000 migrants from other parts of Indonesia. No one knows if the rugged territory, even with natural resources such as marble and sandalwood, could survive on its own. "Come back in a month," says a skeptical Colonel Noer Muis, military commander of East Timor, "and Dili could look like a cowboy town." Portugal, the territory's former colonial master, has pledged to underwrite the province's annual budget of about $100 million for an unspecified number of years of independence. After that, East Timor could become a foreign aid junkie. The pro-autonomy movement and the Indonesian government maintain that once outside the ASEAN trade block, East Timor will have no market for its scant exports. 

The loss of even one province strikes many as the thin edge of the separatist wedge in unstable, post-Suharto Indonesia. Nationalistic movements are also percolating in the provinces of Aceh, Irian Jaya and Riau. "For Indonesia, East Timor is not at all viable to keep in economic terms," says Suko Bandiyono, senior researcher at Jakarta's Centre for Population and Human Resources Studies. "But in political terms, we need it--if only to keep the country together." Pro-independence Timorese flip-flop that argument. "The rest of Indonesia is falling apart," says Chiquito de Almeida, a staff member of the provincial legislature in the town of Ainaro. "We would rather stand alone and deal with our problems in our own way." East Timor, unlike other Indonesian provinces, is predominantly Roman Catholic and identifies strongly with its Portuguese past. 

Fears that East Timor could push the archipelago nation toward disintegration are no doubt the root cause of the recent bloodshed. And that tension could continue for a long time. Despite the U.N.'s 1,000 representatives already in East Timor, plus 8,000 Indonesian policemen charged with keeping the peace, armed militia groups have spent the last five months spreading terror in the countryside. (Police have also been involved in recent violence.) In Dili, the armed groups have broken into offices of pro-independence organizations and assassinated people like Manelito Carracalao, the 17-year-old son of pro-independence leader Manuel Carrascalao. The Indonesian military insists it has nothing to do with the militias. But at least two former paramilitary groups established by the military, the Halilintar (Lightning) paramilitary squad and the Garda Paksi (Axis Guard), have transformed themselves into armed opponents of independence. "They became pro-integration militias when the issue of a vote came up," says Andrew McNaughtan, a pro-East Timor activist in Australia. "In Latin American terms they would be known as death squads." 

All of the local factions, including those run by the pro-independence factions, were supposed to disarm before the referendum. But the thugs with the headbands continue to brandish their guns. Not far from East Timor's western border with the province of East Nusatenggara, a group called Besi Merah Putih (Red-and-White Iron) mans the roadblocks. Anyone who approaches receives a stern warning from heavies with machetes, clubs and semi-automatic rifles. "Turn around for your own safety," one wild-eyed militia member barks to a foreign journalist. "This is a controlled area." In Dili last week, gun-wielding members of a militia known as Aitarak chased reporters toward a hotel. "We got halfway across the no-man's land," says Chris Jones, cameraman for New Zealand's TV 3, "and they just opened fire at us." After a violent incident in Dili last week, Indonesian Lieut. General J.J. Sitompul arrived by helicopter to survey the scene and was asked how the trouble began. "That's a hard question," he said. "How did Kosovo happen?" 

Despite official denials, people in East Timor assume the military is behind the militias, both to protect Indonesia from disintegration and to safeguard the armed forces' own 24 years' investment in East Timor--in businesses and emotional attachments. But they may ultimately find themselves unable to stop the change. The post-Suharto era is still at a politically inchoate stage; the parliament that convenes in October will be the first democratically functioning body in nearly five decades, and it's anybody's guess how well it will function. The East Timor question may be one of its first considerations. If the referendum is defeated soundly, the newly elected members of the People's Consultative Assembly, or MPR, will have little choice but to heed the voice of the East Timorese. The question is whether weeks of intimidation have managed to make the vote tight. "If they can make the result close to 50-50," says Gusmão, who heads the National Council of Timorese Resistance, "the result will confuse the MPR." 

Even if the independence supporters prevail, there's no surety of a quick peace in East Timor. "If the independence camp wins," vows Marcelo Pereira, a civil servant in Dili, "we won't accept that and there will be no end to the conflict." East Timor took a big step this week--into an altogether uncertain future. 

Reported by Jason Tedjasukmana/Ainaro, Lisa Rose Weaver/Dili, Zamira Loebis/Jakarta and Lisa Clausen/Melbourne 

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