Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975 — with a nod and a wink from Washington, which saw Jakarta as a key anticommunist ally in the region — and killed as much as one third of its population in 24 years of trying to subdue East Timor. International pressure forced Jakarta to agree to the independence referendum, but the government fears that losing East Timor would simply spur secessionist movements inside Indonesia — which, after all, is an archipelago of diverse ethnic, religious and linguistic identities united only by the fact that they were once all colonized by the Dutch. With anti-independence militias appearing to be preparing to launch a bloodbath, the people of East Timor may again pay a heavy price for Indonesia’s insecurity.
Indonesia says it will abide by the outcome of Monday’s U.N.-supervised independence referendum in East Timor, but the anti-independence militias nurtured by elements in the Indonesian army appear to have no such intentions. Having vowed to wage a guerrilla war if they lose the referendum, the militias on Tuesday continued attacking election officials and independence activists, and stopped pro-independence voters from leaving the territory. Unhindered by Indonesian police, thugs with guns and machetes simply marched into the airport at Dili, East Timor's capital, seized tickets and ordered those they deemed pro-independence out of the building. Eurico Guterres, the leader of Dili's Aitarak militia, said his organization would stop independence campaigners and "the political elite" from leaving the territory before the referendum result is announced on September 7. The move is particularly ominous in light of the militias’ vow to turn East Timor into a "sea of blood" if voters opt for independence.