There are various nightmare scenarios, all of them violent - an attack on a village, or on a convoy of United Nations volunteers perhaps, or even a car full of foreign journalists. Innocent people are killed, in any case, and the two sides - pro-independence and pro-Indonesia - immediately blame one another. Retaliatory attacks escalate into sporadic guerrilla fighting, with the UN mission caught in the middle.
As foreign governments scramble to evacuate their citizens, the Indonesian army, which many suspect of being behind the attacks in the first place, lands armoured brigades into East Timor on the pretext of "restoring order". Tens of thousands of refugees take to the hills, massacres are reported, and the results of the referendum are forgotten as the tiny territory slips back once again into the civil war from which it seemed finally that it was about to emerge.
These are tense times in East Timor and, if the chain of events outlined above is still an extreme possibility, plenty of people are deeply worried about the next few weeks.
On the face of it, East Timor has everything to gain. One month tomorrow, the UN will supervise a referendum in which the territory's people will be asked to say yes or no to a proposal for "autonomy", a package of limited self-determination which would guarantee their continuing incorporation with Indonesia. If autonomy is rejected, East Timor will finally be granted its independence, nearly 24 years after being brutally invaded by Indonesia.
But the former Labour minister Lord Judd, who returned yesterday from a fact-finding mission to East Timor, said that the international community needs to crank up its involvement if a humanitarian disaster is to be avoided in the expectation that the East Timorese will go for the independence route. "From the moment that happens, the UN will be taking responsibility for trusteeship for East Timor," he said. "In such a volatile and dangerous situation anything could happen. It would be the ultimate abrogation of international responsibility if we do not have the contingent plans to do the job right from day one."
When the idea of the referendum was first put forward in January by the Indonesian president, BJ Habibie, it seemed like the happy ending to one of Asia's saddest stories, and few outsiders seriously doubted that the great majority of East Timorese wanted independence. Six months later, however, little is going according to plan.
Just last week, the UN's Secretary General, Kofi Annan, announced a second postponement of the referendum - having originally been scheduled for a week today, it will now be held on Monday 30 August. The reason for the delays is simple - despite repeated promises by the Indonesian government to rectify the situation, East Timor is far too dangerous a place to hold a genuinely fair referendum.
Large areas of the country remain under the control of the so-called "militias" - gangs of pro-Jakarta thugs intimidating the supporters of independence and acting with the support, and even under the leadership, of the Indonesian army. Aid organisations estimate that as many as 59,000 people have been driven out of their homes by the militias, who have attacked aid convoys and UN personnel. Under the agreement between Indonesia, the UN and Portugal, the former colonial ruler of East Timor, responsibility for security rests with the Indonesian police - part of the very armed forces which are behind the violence in the first place.
But the new focus of concern is the period immediately following the referendum. If, as seems likely despite the intimidation, the result is a vote for independence, there will be a very unstable interim before the result is ratified in the Indonesian parliament. Having been rejected at the ballot box, the Indonesian armed forces will have even less incentive to maintain law and order - but with only a few hundred unarmed police in place as "advisers", the UN will be in no position to do the job.
UN officials in New York are reported to be making plans for an interim administration lasting as long as four years. However sweet their independence, the East Timorese would feel the shock of separation, especially from the substantial Indonesian subsidies. The UN would have to bear the cost of these, along with reorganisations of local institutions like the judiciary and even the currency.
But, above all, the UN would be faced with the burden of keeping the peace. "There seems to be this growing misconception that we can just send in the cavalry if violence breaks out after the consultations," said one UN source last week. "But that simply is not true."Reuse content