Subject: Guardian: A fair and free election

also: [Guardian] More than 90% vote in East Timor polls

Guardian [UK] August 30, 2001

Dili dispatch

A fair and free election

East Timor's enthusiastic approach to full independence may make it a blueprint for post-conflict situations, writes John Aglionby

The long line of people walking purposefully through the darkness this morning stretched as far as our car's headlights could illuminate.

It was 5.30am and still an hour before sunrise but much of East Timor had been up for hours preparing for its first ever fully free and fair election.

"We're all heading to the polling station," said Alberto da Costa, who was accompanied by his wife and children. "We've been walking since 3am but this is the best time of day to vote because it is not yet too hot."

By the time the polling stations opened an hour and a half later the queues in some places were several hundred people long. But as the sun rose higher and higher the people's determination showed no sign of flagging despite the sweltering heat.

"We'll wait as long as it takes," said Maria, as she waited in line in Manututo, about 30 miles east of the capital, Dili, after a comparatively brief two-mile walk. "This is going to decide the future of East Timor."

People's enthusiasm was so great that in some places the polls were able to close by early afternoon as everyone on the roll had voted.

Nine hours later, when the polls were meant to close, thousands of people were still waiting in line as local officials struggled to find people's names in the Tolstoyesque electoral registers. The election regulations state that anyone queuing by 4pm will be allowed to cast their ballot.

A few minor incidents were reported, but for the most part everything went smoothly.

The East Timorese are voting for an 88-member assembly that will write the constitution and prepare for full independence, expected to be some time next year.

Fretilin (the Independent Revolutionary Front of East Timor), which mounted the first drive for independence after the Portuguese colonisers withdrew in 1974, is expected to win a majority but no one knows how large it will be.

The election is being held exactly two years after the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly to secede from Indonesia following 24 years of repressive occupation during which time an estimated 200,000 people were killed or died of starvation.

The Indonesian military and its local militias responded to the result of that ballot by killing hundreds more people, destroying more than three-quarters of the buildings in the former Portuguese colony and forcibly relocating more than 250,000 people to Indonesian West Timor.

International troops and a UN transitional administration have steadily built the nation (not "rebuilding", because there was nothing left to rebuild) and are in the process of handing over authority to the East Timorese.

Nation-building in East Timor is much more than bricks and mortar. There are still more than 80,000 people stuck in West Timor and until a reconciliation process with the militias is established the people will find it very hard to move on.

Earlier this week, members of the steering committee of the proposed independent reception, truth and reconciliation commission unveiled their plans for a scheme that could well become a blueprint for post-conflict situations around the world.

The commission, which will inquire into human rights violations on all sides between April 1974, when Portugal withdrew from its former colony, to October 1999, aims to seek the truth, facilitate the return and reconciliation of the refugees still in West Timor, and make recommendations for future action.

It is expected that that perpetrators of minor offences, many of whom were forced to join the militias, will be tried by traditional chiefs, given community service sentences and then complete the reconciliation process. Those suspected of serious crimes will have to face formal prosecution.

"Yes we want reconciliation but we also need justice," said Aniceto Guterres, one member of the committee. "There cannot be amnesties and reconciliation without justice for all the people that suffered so much."

Forty-eight women living in the border town of Maliana who lost their husbands during the orgy of violence in 1999 are a typical example. They have set up a cooperative to make money but are clearly still angry and traumatised.

"I know who killed my husband and I'm ready to testify at his trial," said Augusta da Silva, 30, who works in the cooperative's shop. "What's important is that all the killers are tried first. Once that's happened there'll be no hard feelings in my heart."

The Guardian

Friday August 31, 2001

More than 90% vote in East Timor polls

John Aglionby in Gariwai

Tens of thousands of people camped overnight at polling stations to cast their votes yesterday for the national assembly which will write East Timor's constitution and pave the way for full independence. Many others started before sunrise to walk miles to vote for the first time since the ballot for independence from Indonesia two years ago.

"This is for our nation's future," said Salvador Perreira, a farmer in the hill town of Gariwai. "If we really want to be free, we have to vote, even if it means waiting a few hours."

Observers at the polling station in Leorima, a village in the mountains south-west of Dili, were told that more than half the registered voters were there three hours before the polls opened at 7am.

The chief electoral officer, Carlos Valenzuela, said the initial returns suggested that the turnout was well over 90%.

"We never tried to have too high expectations but, yes, we are satisfied with the massive turnout and because it was so peaceful," he said. The enthusiasm for voting was so great that some polling stations were able to close several hours early, as everyone on the electoral roll had turned up.

In other places, particularly in Dili, where a quarter of the country's 800,000 people live, they were obliged to stay open for several hours after the official close at 4pm.

The 88-member assembly is expected to lead the country to full independence by the middle of next year. The former Portuguese colony, which Indonesia seized in 1975 and brutally occupied for 24 years, is being run by a UN transitional administration.

The resistance leader Jose Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao, who is almost guaranteed to become East Timor's first president in a separate election next year, went on a whistle-stop tour of eastern districts yesterday.

He told a crowd of voters in Gariwai that their maturity, calmness and patience would send a strong signal to the international community.

"Many people did not believe that three years ago we would have the civility [to hold a free election]," he said. "But today we showed the world that we have the necessary strength."

Unofficial results are expected within a week, and the official tally a few days later.

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