The landscape of East Timor resembles northern Australia, with its palms, eucalyptus trees and dry red earth. But the people could be Melanesian and the names are pure Portuguese - Goncalves, Tavares, and da Cruz. The beer comes from Singapore and Bali, the wine from Lisbon, and the chocolate biscuits from Australia. Even by south-east Asian standards, East Timor is a picturesque jumble.
To this multicultural stew has been added a new ingredient, in the shape of the United Nations. Since last month the dusty streets of the capital, Dili, have been transformed by the presence of white Toyota Land Cruisers bearing the UN insignia. The few hotels and restaurants are filled with UN people from dozens of countries. Collectively they are known as Unamet - the UN Assistance Mission to East Timor, and over the next few months they have got the daunting task of bringing some kind of order to the Timorese tangle.
At first sight it appears very simple. Twenty-three years ago last December, after months of border incursions and political skulduggery, the Indonesian army launched a brutal invasion. After a rapid and confused process of decolonisation, a popular government, with its own small army, had declared its independence. Over the next few years, the Indonesians engaged in a bitter mountain war which left some 200,000 people dead, from famine, disease and fighting.
For a quarter of a century, under the leadership of the Indonesian president, Suharto, East Timor's suffering continued, with an overwhelming Indonesian force never quite stamping out the remnants of guerrilla resistance. Then in May 1998, Suharto fell. In January, out of the blue, his successor, BJ Habibie, made an astonishing announcement: after a quarter of a century of diplomatic stonewalling, Jakarta was prepared to grant independence to East Timor.
Early last month, Indonesia and Portugal reached the agreement which Unamet must implement - a "popular consultation" (face-saving code for a referendum) to be held on 8 August. East Timorese will be presented with a proposal for "autonomy" within Indonesia - local direction of internal affairs, but with defence, economic and foreign policy controlled from Jakarta. If this is rejected, the UN will oversee a transition to full independence.
All things being equal, there is little doubt that independence would be the choice of most East Timorese. On the face of it, the referendum will provide a happy ending to one of east Asia's most tragic stories. But rarely are the problems of colonialism easily solved. In the past few months, and especially in the past week, the entire project has been thrown into jeopardy.
The problem is encapsulated in an incident witnessed on Tuesday by a team from the UN and Red Cross in the western part of East Timor. Their convoy was collecting two men taken hostage by the pro-independence guerrillas, Falintil, but then released unharmed. By chance they passed through Leotela, a village where they found the buildings smouldering, men armed with machetes driving people away, and an old man being beaten up.
The assailants were members of a paramilitary gang, intent on preventing independence, calling itself the Besi Merah Putih, or Red and White Iron, after the colours of the Indonesian flag. With them were soldiers of the Indonesian army.
Similar gangs of militia have driven tens of thousands of villagers from their homes, according to the UN. Refugees face nightly intimidation, and the purpose seems twofold - to disrupt registration of voters and terrorise them into voting for autonomy within Indonesia.
After a quarter of a century of treachery, this Indonesian stance hardly comes as a shock. More surprising is that the majority of militia members are local men. So an awkward question arises - do its people really favour independence?
The militias themselves are an unsavoury bunch, united only by a virulent rejection of independence and an appetite for violence. Many appear to be little more than gangsters; others are paid or coerced to join the gangs. "In three weeks here, I have yet to meet a sane, educated Timorese who wants integration," said a foreign official in Dili. But such people do exist.
Prominent among them is Basilio Araujo, a civil servant who also happens to be the first East Timorese ever to study at a British university. As a senior member of the Forum For Unity, Democracy and Justice, he argues for union with Indonesia. To break away so suddenly, the argument goes, would be suicidal. East Timor is a poor backwater with an ill-educated pop- ulation and few natural resources apart from coffee and sandalwood. Most doctors, civil servants and teachers are from Indonesia, which subsidises the territory on a huge scale.
"These people forget that when independence comes, the next day you have to get up and feed your people," Mr Araujo said. "They're leading our people over the edge of the abyss."
But in Dili, and even in areas under militia control, it is hard to find a Timorese who shares these feelings - the abyss is where they have languished for the past 25 years. And it is a question not of economics but justice. For all the past, East Timor has managed to preserve a distinct identity in the face of overwhelming force. When the UN helicopter flies over Dili, children whose own parents were children at the time of the invasion, point up at it and shout, "Look! It's one of ours. We're going to win."Reuse content