Subject: WP: With Past Violence in Mind, Wary E. Timor Prepares to Vote

The Washington Post Wednesday, August 22, 2001

Wary East Timor Prepares to Vote

With Past Violence in Mind, Candidates Play Down Differences

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran Washington Post Foreign Service

BEKARI, East Timor -- "What is a democratic election?" Juliao Mauseri asked a dozen fishermen who had gathered outside the village chief's house.

A few of them looked at each other. Others stared blankly at Mauseri. Nobody spoke.

Mauseri, a veteran political activist, repeated his question -- and elicited another awkward silence. Finally, on his third attempt, he coaxed an answer out of a few of the participants.

"It's when nobody threatens you," ventured Abril Soares.

"It's when you are not forced to vote a certain way," added Vitorino Soares.

"It is supposed to be free and fair and peaceful," said Juliao Bareto, the village chief. "We have never had an election like that."

On Aug. 30, two years to the day after a U.N.-organized referendum in which the people of East Timor voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia, they will go to the polls to elect an 88-member national assembly to draft the territory's first constitution.

The United Nations has been administering East Timor during its transition to independence. After the new assembly writes a constitution, East Timorese leaders will begin discussions with the world body about when they would assume full control of the country.

Although next week's election marks a major step toward full nationhood for East Timor, people in this coastal village and in communities across the tiny territory are approaching the vote with as much trepidation as excitement.

After the 1999 referendum, East Timor was devastated by anti-independence militia groups supported by the Indonesian armed forces. The violence claimed hundreds of lives, led to tens of thousands of people being forcibly deported to Indonesian-controlled western Timor and resulted in the destruction of more than 85 percent of the buildings in the territory.

These days, reminders of the trauma still are omnipresent. In the capital, Dili, the streets are lined with gutted shops and public buildings. In tiny hamlets like Bekari, burned-out houses have been hastily patched with palm fronds and plastic tarpaulins. Thousands of people still have relatives living in refugee camps in western Timor who have been prevented from returning home by militia leaders.

"The last time they had an election, it tore the place apart," said Jim Della-Giacoma, a representative of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, which is organizing civic education forums in East Timor, including the one in this village. "They worry that political activity will lead to violence."

As a consequence, the 16 political parties vying for seats in the assembly have adopted a low-key approach. They have so assiduously avoided contentious issues -- such as the framework of East Timor's relationship with Indonesia or whether courts should provide leniency to militia leaders -- that many of their platforms appear strangely identical. Candidates do not drive around with megaphones or tack up posters. And party leaders have refrained from taking rhetorical potshots at each other.

When Fernando Lasama de Araujo, the leader of the newly formed Democratic Party, was asked in an interview why voters should choose his party over Fretelin, the former resistance organization that is widely expected to win a majority of the seats, he declined to answer.

"It's hard to say," said Araujo, 38, a nattily dressed former independence activist who spent seven years in an Indonesian jail. "We don't want to criticize anybody."

People also have been scarred by East Timor's previous experiment with multiparty politics, which came in 1975, after Portugal gave its former colony freedom. A fierce rivalry broke out between the parties, a brief but bloody civil war ensued, and Indonesia subsequently invaded and annexed East Timor.

Mindful of old rivalries, 14 of the parties last month signed a pact of national unity calling for peaceful elections and unconditional acceptance of the results.

"No more fighting," said Xanana Gusmao, the country's independence leader, as the agreement was signed. "It is time for democracy."

The United Nations has taken extraordinary security precautions for the elections out of a fear of interparty violence and concerns that militiamen might attempt to cross the border from Indonesia to intimidate voters. International peacekeepers and police officers have stepped up patrols in cities and set up checkpoints on major roads.

But U.N. officials said they are increasingly confident that the balloting will occur peacefully. "I was predicting turbulence," said Sergio Vieira de Mello, the special representative of the U.N. secretary general, who is effectively East Timor's president until independence, which is expected next year. "But the campaign has unfolded in a very orderly and responsible way."

Ordinary citizens also appear to be abiding by an informal code of civility. They attend rallies for not just one party, but several. And they are reluctant to tell anyone -- even a foreign visitor -- for whom they will vote.

"The last time we voted, people were intimidated," said Xavier da Costa, a construction worker in Dili. "People shouldn't have to feel that way again."

Despite the worries about violence and a degree of confusion about just what is on the ballot -- several villagers here mistakenly said they would be selecting a president -- people have been almost universally eager to participate in the territory's first democratic election.

Of the 380,000 people declared eligible to cast a ballot, 218,000 have traveled to their local elections office just to confirm that their names are on the voter rolls. Candidate forums and civic education programs have drawn a large chunk of the population. And every night, people cluster around television sets to watch candidates, who are given free broadcast time.

Although their campaigns make little mention of the task ahead, the assembly members will have to tackle a raft of thorny issues as they write a constitution. Will the new country have a presidential or a parliamentary system? Should the new flag have elements of the Fretelin resistance banner? Should the national language be Portuguese (favored by the older generation), Indonesian (favored by younger people), a limited local trading language called Tetum, or English?

Most diplomats, U.N. officials and local leaders expect Fretelin to win a handy majority, perhaps even as much as two-thirds control of the assembly, which would allow it to control the drafting of the constitution. Fretelin's president, Mari Alkatiri, has gone even further, predicting in an interview that his party would win 85 percent of the seats.

"We're different from the other parties," he said. "We led the struggle for independence for 24 years."

It is a message that has resonated across the territory. In Bekari, several villagers said they already had decided to vote for Fretelin. "They were the ones who fought for our freedom," one man said.

But other parties contend that Fretelin, which is regarded as left of center, is out of step with the country's challenges. "We thank them for what they did, but we're no longer living in the resistance days," said Mario Carrascalo, a former territorial governor who heads the Social Democrat Party.

But little of that debate has filtered down to villagers in places like Bekari. To international experts like Della-Giacoma, however, that may not be such a bad thing.

"A boring election," he said, "will be an important step forward for East Timor's democratic life."

August Menu
World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu

Note: For those who would like to fax "the powers that be" - CallCenter is a Native 32-bit Voice Telephony software application integrated with fax and data communications... and it's free of charge! Download from