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Leading Article: Heartening lessons from yesterday's vote in East Timor

THERE IS no likelihood of a simple, happy ending in East Timor. None the less, we should remind ourselves that the referendum on independence that took place yesterday would have seemed unthinkable just a few years ago, when repression on a grand scale was the order of the day. Indonesian forces seized the former Portuguese colony in 1975, leading to an annexation that was never internationally recognised but which came to be regarded as a status quo. The next quarter of a century came to be marked, above all, by brutality.

Even in the immediate lead-up to yesterday's referendum, widespread violence seemed to be a warm-up for a bloody endgame. Against expectations, however, the vote itself - with an astonishing turnout of 95 per cent - was more peaceful than the lead-up.

Independence for yet another small territory is not in itself a reason to rejoice. The dangers of further fragmentation are many. The Indonesian province of Aceh is already restive, and others could follow its lead. But the example of East Timor shows that the solution is not to use violence, which can only backfire.

Repression, however brutal, does not keep oppressors in power in the long term. The changes that took place in Indonesia, following the demonstrations that overthrew President Suharto last year, have not yet brought democracy. But we are a great deal closer. More than 100,000 are believed to have died as a consequence of the war launched by the Indonesian regime against the pro-independence Timorese. To no avail.

The message that violence does not work is relevant elsewhere, from Burma to the Balkans. A peaceful pro-independence vote in East Timor can thus be part of a cumulative process where the international climate becomes less inviting for those who seek to use violence as a way of holding on to power.

Anti-independence militias in East Timor are still warning of dire consequences if - as seems certain - the vote is in favour of independence. But experience suggests that thuggish militias need the backing of a powerful regime to survive. For the moment, the signs are that the regime in Jakarta accepts the inevitable. Even the military commander in East Timor yesterday praised the vote, saying that the United Nations mission there had "implemented its duty well".

Hours before polling stations opened yesterday, there was still a widespread assumption of impending bloodshed. But the high turnout, and yesterday's almost bloodless day, give reason to be grateful for mercies large and small. We cannot suppose that East Timor will enjoy an easy future. We can, however, hope that the next 20 years will be better than the last.