They were lined up to vote before the polls opened at 7 a.m. Thursday, and when the balloting ended late in the day, 93 percent of eligible voters had cast ballots in the first election of the world's newest nation. For East Timor, the site of bloody rioting two years ago when the largely Christian East Timorese tried to assert their independence from Indonesia, the victory was not in the election of the 88-member assembly which will draft the new nation's constitution, but the fact that the election was held at all.
East Timor, which has a population of 738,000, lies 300 miles northwest of Australia, in the string of islands that make up Indonesia. West Timor remains a part of Indonesia, although such political splits are not new. Haiti and the Dominican Republic share an island in the Caribbean. The Sultanate of Brunei Darussalam shares the island of Borneo with the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.
Violent coexistence: But each has managed to coexist more or less peacefully with its neighbor. The relationship between East and West Timor, however, has not been a happy one. Timor island was carved up between the Dutch and the Portuguese after a long period of Portuguese control of the eastern half. Indonesia, which surrounds East Timor, invaded the territory in 1975 after Portugal's disorganized withdrawal and annexed it the following year.
More than 200,000 people -- a quarter of the territory's population -- were killed in the fighting, famine and disease that followed. But Indonesia's rule was never recognized by the mainstream world community or the United Nations, and its hold on East Timor began falling apart after soldiers shot dead dozens of mourners at a funeral procession in the capital city of Dili in 1991, rekindling foreign opposition to Jakarta's rule.
Ethnic violence: The United Nations stepped in to administer the new state after its people voted for independence despite violence perpetrated by official -- and unofficial -- military groups. Hundreds were killed, and the province was devastated as those opposed to an independent East Timor rampaged through the streets, shooting the East Timorese indiscriminately or hacking them to death with machetes. Much of the rancor stems from the fact that East Timor is predominantly Christian and Catholic, while Indonesia has one of the world's largest Muslim populations.
The East Timorese were given the option of becoming an autonomous region within Indonesia but rejected it in favor of independence.
Thus, for the thousands who went to the polls to choose among 16 political parties and more than 1,000 candidates, the right to vote was won in the blood of friends and loved ones.
As Americans choose not to vote in increasing numbers, they can stand to be reminded by the people of East Timor just how important freedom is.