Subject: With song, poems and soccer, Timorese learn about democracy

With song, poems and soccer, Timorese learn about democracy

DILI, East Timor, Aug 26 (AFP) - In a territory which has known only centuries of authoritarian rule, an intensive civic education campaign to create the world's newest democracy is winding up.

On August 30 just over 400,000 East Timorese will elect an 88-member virtual parliament, exactly two years after their country was razed to rubble and hundreds of their kin were killed by Indonesian-backed militias.

That was the outcome the last time East Timor's people had their say, when they voted in a United Nations-sponsored ballot to end Indonesia's brutal 24-year occupation during which an estimated 200,000 people died.

The Jakarta regime followed Portugal's harsh 400-year colonial rule. In the brief interregnum the territory slipped into civil war.

For the past several weeks the territory's beaches, remote mountaintops and even prisons have become virtual classrooms in which tens of thousands of Timorese have been learning they can have their say without bloody retribution.

"They've never experienced democracy before and democracy is not something you just decree and then it happens," said Finn Reske-Nielsen, the UN Development Program's (UNDP) director in East Timor.

Under the UNDP's auspices five million dollars from 15 donor nations has been spent on voter and civic education in the UN-administered territory, which will become independent by the middle of next year.

"In a country that has never known democracy, there is a need to teach people about what it means to live in a democratic state, to form a democratically-elected government, to have a public service that's consistent with (that) government," said Reske-Neilson.

In mountainous Manufahi district, education teams trekked for two hours through knee-deep leech-ridden rivers and up treacherous slopes to remote Rotuto village in early July.

In eastern Viqueque district elders from the isolated Uaibobo village trekked for a day down to the local town to demand the civic education teams come up to their people. A team went by helicopter.

The choirs of the Catholic churches, the Bob Marley-esque rock bands of its youth and poets in the native Tetum language have belted out and lyricised themes of free choice and tolerance, funded by a 300,000 dollar UNDP grant scheme for local groups.

Music, poetry and sport are the favoured medium, said Stephen De Meulenaere, a grants coordinator.

"It's important to use relaxed settings because before politics was always associated with violence, so people were reluctant to get involved," he told

"The level of literacy is very low so heavy texts and long speeches are not always useful."

Nevertheless, interest is so keen that "people have sat through the most boring speeches."

Rival candidates from the 16 parties running for election have played soccer and volleyball together in a promotion of unity.

Thirty aspiring lyricists composed democracy songs for a competition and performed them in Dili on Saturday.

"You choose this one, I choose that one/We choose whatever we wish/Because that is our right," proclaimed one Tetum song.

The 68 inmates of Gleno prison in Ermera district lapped up talks on a constitution.

Villagers in Liquica district west of Dili learnt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by heart over two days on the beach. On the seaside east of Dili students used interactive theater to encourage participation.

The programs have had a clear effect, notes interim Foreign Minister and Nobel Peace laureate Jose Ramos Horta.

"A month ago they were more worried," he said. "You'd hear, 'We don't want political parties, parties mean fighting, many killing.'"

Now "everyone is optimistic," Ramos Horta said.

"They are happy, they are joyful at the prospects of electing their own leaders. They know that they're not going to be killed if they vote one way or another."

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