Although Monday's balloting was largely free of violence and intimidation, IFET-OP sees that day as more the exception than the rule. Ongoing attention and pressure from the international community is required if the consultation process in East Timor is to conclude freely and peacefully.
On Consultation Day, more than 95% of East Timor's registered voters went to the polls, vividly demonstrating their commitment and desire for a peaceful resolution of their political status. The day was a largely a respite from the carnage that preceded it. East Timorese voters demonstrated tremendous courage in going to the polls amidst a context of intimidation and threats.
Although yesterday's voting was peaceful in most of East Timor, violent incidents and intimidation disrupted the process in a number of places, including the killing of a UNAMET election worker in Ermera. Seven polling stations had to close temporarily in order to deal with threats or violence from pro-Indonesia militias. The fact that nearly all registered voters cast their ballots is a tribute to their determination to transcend the climate of terror.
Many East Timorese are afraid of a militia-initiated bloodbath in the days after the announcement of the results of the vote. Given the history of militia violence in East Timor over the last few months, and the killings in Dili last Thursday and Friday, this fear is well-founded.
Today there have been numerous confrontations, roadblocks, and threats both against East Timorese people and against international observers. Militia beat up an Australian observer from the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) and his driver in Hera. In Ermera, armed militia threatened an IFET-OP observer at gunpoint. Later in the day, militia members held 151 UNAMET staff and international observers (including seven from IFET-OP) as virtual hostages in Ermera for several hours before their negotiated release. In Ainaro, militia members kidnapped two UNAMET staff people. In Oecussi, unprecedented widespread militia activity has forced many to leave or go into hiding. Although IFET-OP continues to gather information about escalating violence, we share the concern of many East Timorese that the situation could get much bloodier in a very short time.
Over the last 24 hours, a pattern of militia attacks against East Timorese working for UNAMET has emerged. It was these local staff, with tremendous bravery and competence, who made yesterday's voting possible. The United Nations owes them a great debt -- and is further obligated to take immediate effective measures to protect them from retaliation. Even if the Indonesian government is not yet willing to admit armed UN peacekeepers to restore peace or prevent bloodshed for the East Timorese population, it has no excuse for preventing the UN from protecting its own workers.
After the wave of killings late last week, strong reaction from the international community stemmed the tide of violence to make yesterday's balloting possible. IFET-OP is concerned that this pressure will wane as visiting ambassadors, parliamentarians, observers and journalists leave East Timor. IFET-OP observers will remain in East Timor for a few more weeks, but our international volunteers cannot sustain a permanent presence here.
Although UNAMET will maintain and expand its presence in East Timor over the next few weeks, their unarmed presence has already proven inadequate to prevent violence in East Timor, or even to protect their staff. The May 5 agreements assign responsibility for security to the Indonesian police, who have shown themselves unwilling or unable to fulfill that responsibility. Only the intense spotlight on yesterday's balloting, combined with international pressure, was able to attain a fragile, temporary peace.
If that peace continues to deteriorate, it will be a result of the short attention span of the international community and its failure to confront Indonesia's illegal military presence in East Timor. The international community can prevent further bloodshed by expanding UNAMET's mandate and giving the East Timorese people the security they deserve.
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