Moralpolitik: The Timor Test

In our last issue, Charles Krauthammer declared the idea of humanitarian intervention one whose time has come and gone. A trip to East Timor persuaded this author otherwise.

Issue: Winter 1999-2000

On August 30, 1999, the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) held a referendum on the territory's future. Voters were asked whether they wished their homeland to remain inside Indonesia. The government of President B.J. Habibie in Jakarta had tried to make continued integration more palatable locally by calling it "special autonomy"--a status elaborated in a fifty-nine article document that few East Timorese bothered to read.

They did bother to vote, however, despite widespread intimidation by Jakarta-backed militias. Out of a population of perhaps 850,000, more than 400,000 had registered to take part in the referendum, and of these, a stunning 98.6 percent went to the often considerable trouble of voting. Many walked miles from their homes to polling stations and back. Of the ballots cast, 78.5 percent--nearly four out of every five persons--rejected continued ties with Indonesia.

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