Subject: FT: UN faces challenge to prepare E Timor for democracy

Financial Times UN faces challenge to prepare E Timor for democracy By Joe Leahy Published: August 14 2001 16:54GMT | Last Updated: August 14 2001 18:14GMT

Antonio, a farmer in the arid highlands south of East Timor's capital Dili, points at a distant ridgeline. That is where his family's traditional houses were before Indonesia invaded in 1975.

Today, there is only scrub. The Indonesians forced the villagers to relocate into the valleys to isolate independence fighters living in the hills. "When the Indonesians arrived, they burned down everything, and when they left, they burned down everything. The only thing they left behind was the road," Antonio says.

For the generation they were under Indonesian rule, the East Timorese waged a war for self-determination, culminating in a United Nations-supervised vote in 1999 to separate from Indonesia. Now, for the first time they are preparing to elect their own national leaders. On August 30, voters will choose 88 members to serve in a constituent assembly.

The body will formulate a constitution and, after a presidential election, formal independence will be declared. By the first half of next year, East Timor is expected to officially become the world's newest democracy.

However, the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), the international body formed to govern the territory until independence, faces a difficult challenge to ensure that the territory's 800,000-strong population is ready for the transformation ahead.

After years of using the word "democracy" as a byword for their independence struggle, the East Timorese, a deeply traditional people, are only now coming to terms with what the concept means in practice.

"There is little clear understanding of the meaning or implications of democracy," the Asia Foundation, which promotes peace and democracy, said in a survey. It found that while "36 per cent [of respondents] understand democracy as freedom of speech. . . no one equated democracy with elections".

Over the past few months, the UN has conducted an intense, if belated, civic education campaign. Small teams of trainers comprised of four local people representing various interest groups have been recruited in each district.

These teams have been training community leaders and other figures in civic education. They have also been giving small grants to others active in the field, such as university groups.

The UN has distributed televisions and video players to the districts. A hit programme has been "Democracy Sunday" - a recording of a peace rally led by Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, East Timor's Nobel Peace Prize-winning bishop.

The message is getting through, argues Sergio Vieira de Mello, the head of UNTAET. "These people may not know what democracy is but they certainly know what democracy is not, and they're tired of that." But it is a steep learning curve. At a national level, East Timor has only ever known authoritarianism. Prior to the Indonesians, Portuguese colonialists ruled the territory for about 400 years, interrupted only by the Japanese during the second world war.

The Timorese have also retained many of their traditional, hierarchical social structures. In some areas, the descendants of East Timor's former royal families still enjoy hereditary political and ritual powers. Marriages are often still arranged between closely related clans.

When Indonesia tried to introduce village elections early in its rule, people commonly voted for whoever was chosen by the elders. Some fear this could happen again.

"An elected, traditional leader is a contradiction in terms," says Mari Alkatiri, a senior official of Fretilin, the favourite grouping in the elections.

The other potential factor dampening the Timorese appetite for democracy is a fear of violence among the territory's 16 rival political parties. Many remember the brief civil war in 1975 that erupted after the Portuguese pulled out and before the Indonesian invasion began. Thousands were murdered because of their political party affiliations.

"There is significant fear that multi-party political competition will lead to conflict and violence," a report by the National Democratic Institute said.

To allay these fears, Mr Alkatiri and 13 other party leaders have been conducting joint visits to the regions to meet the people. They also have signed a pact of national unity and so far have kept a lid on boisterous street campaigning. Fretilin's opening rally was mostly confined to a Dili football field.

Xanana Gusmao, the immensely popular former guerrilla leader, and Jose Ramos Horta, East Timor's other Nobel Peace Prize winner, are also acting as neutrals in the election. Along with the strong UN peacekeeping contingent and police force, they will be ready to mediate in any conflicts.

"If there is violence, it will be geographically contained and easily stopped," says Mr Ramos Horta.

Overall, argues Mr Vieira de Mello, there is an emerging political maturity among ordinary people, even if they do not know all the details of what the election is about.

"The anxiety, which was passive, has now become active in the form of a warning to the political parties: 'We don't want violence any more so please abide by these new rules that the UN is creating here of peaceful, multiparty competition'," says Mr Vieira de Mello.

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