Deadly violence in East Timor has raised a specter of U.N. intervention sure to send chills down the spines of a generation of Americans with painful memories of military involvement in that part of the world. But timely action by Indonesian leaders could head off another crisis in Southeast Asia.
Indonesian President B.J. Habibie should move quickly to disband the pro-Jakarta militia organizations behind the violence, and must honor his pledge to respect the outcome of the recent vote on East Timor's future.
The U.S. State Department's declaration that international intervention may be necessary is, only for the moment, premature. Strong international pressure already is being applied, including threats to withdraw loans that are badly needed by Indonesia.
But the specter of intervention began to solidify almost immediately, with declarations by Indonesia's top military spokesman that a U.N. peacekeeping force would be "logical" if the vote signals Timor independence and news from Australia that planning may already be under way.
The Timor vote, on Aug. 30, went unexpectedly well. The voter turnout rate was 99 percent, with virtually no incidents of violence or intimidation despite weeks of militia-applied pressure leading up to election day. That turnout indicates the passion that the vote has raised in this small territory, which was invaded and annexed by Indonesia after Portugal freed its former colony in 1975.
Two dozen years of fighting, claiming some 200,000 lives, gave way to a ballot choice between outright independence and autonomy within Indonesia. The result of that U.N.-supervised vote, a year after the overthrow of longtime dictator Suharto in favor of a more democratic government, is expected to be announced next week. Observers believe it is certain to favor independence.
The violence that followed the voting trapped officials inside the U.N. compound in the Timorese capital, Dili, and has included the slayings of Timorese who helped U.N. election supervisors. It reflects the fears of the relatively powerful Indonesian army, which has armed the militias out of concern that Timor's success would encourage separatist movements in other territories.
The apparent failure of what has been called a "campaign of intimidation" should be applauded, and it may indeed be necessary to intervene to protect a legal and democratic vote, or simply to protect the peace if the Indonesia army and police yield to independence and pull out.
But this is still a local issue that can be solved locally by Indonesia. The first step belongs to Habibie, who must rein in the military and the police and use them to halt the violence that now mars what was a model voting day.