Subject: AFP: Watchdogs accuse East Timor parties of isolated intimidation

Watchdogs accuse East Timor parties of isolated intimidation

by Bronwyn Curran

DILI, East Timor, Aug 23 (AFP) - East Timorese voters are relishing their first-ever taste of democracy but some parties in next week's elections have tried to intimidate them, local poll watchdogs said Thursday.

Five groups, including the Joint Election Observers Committee and the National East Timorese Students' Resistance (RENETIL), cited cases of minor violence, forced attendance at campaign rallies and intimidation by several of the 16 parties running in the August 30 poll.

After centuries of authoritarian Portuguese rule and 24 years of often-brutal Indonesian occupation, voters next Thursday will choose 88 candidates to form a constituent assembly.

This will write a constitution for the fledgling nation, now under United Nations stewardship, and will become the first parliament. Independence is expected next year.

In the five and a half weeks of campaigning so far, little major violence has arisen.

In a statement the observers hailed the "widespread public enthusiasm" of voters and the success of candidates in controlling their supporters.

But in several districts heavy-handed tactics and stonings have been reported, they said.

A group claiming to belong to the Timorese Social Democrat Association Party (ASDT) paraded through villages in the border district of Maliana dressed in military-style clothes and carrying knives, RENETIL coordinator Jose Antonio Neves said.

"They told the people they must vote for ASDT. One of our observers was there and saw them," he told AFP.

In the eastern district of Viqueque, candidates from the Christian Democrat Party were stoned by unknown attackers the night before a scheduled campaign rally, which was cancelled as a result.

In Liquica district bordering the capital Dili, rocks were thrown at supporters of the Democratic Party (PD) as they gathered for a rally.

"We don't know who was throwing the stones, but they were shouting 'PD to lose, Fretilin to win'," said Neves.

In Maliana residents accused Fretilin (the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor) of intimidation by pledging "to sweep clean" during and after the elections.

"This is a term the Indonesian soldiers used during their rule. It meant 'to kill'," Neves said.

"The Fretilin candidates could well have meant something positive with that term but the people ... took it as a threat and felt frightened."

Fretilin for decades led the guerilla campaign against the Indonesian occupation and is widely tipped to be the hot favourites in the August 30 vote.

The vote comes on the second anniversary of the August 1999 independence ballot, in which 78.5 percent of East Timorese voted to split from Indonesia.

Indonesian troops and the local militias they raised killed hundreds of independence supporters and razed towns to the ground as they herded a quarter of a million people across the border into Indonesian-ruled West Timor. Maliana experienced some of the worst violence then.

"The people in Maliana are easily worried because they experienced a lot of killing and destruction in 1999 and they're on the border with Indonesia," Neves said. The border has been penetrated several times since 1999 by pro-Indonesian militia living in West Timor.

Fretilin's use of the term "sweep clean" has also been criticised by the United Nations-backed Election Media Mediation Panel.

"The term ... recalls intimidation that occurred during the Indonesian occupation when the military used the same term to describe operations against the resistance," the panel said in a statement Monday.

"In 1999 pro-Indonesia militia groups also used the same term to threaten the population before the referendum."

Fretilin candidate Estanislau da Silva had said the party only meant that they would clean up campaign debris like posters, the panel said.

bc/sm/jkb AFP

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