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ETAN Observes with Timorese NGOs

Report and Photos from Marie-Florence Bennes

In Timor-Leste, 2012 is marked by ten years of restored independence and by national elections: the first, the presidential, on Saturday 17 March (first round) and Monday 16 April (second round, or run-off); and the second, the parliamentary, on Saturday 7July. At the conclusion of the presidential second round, the former General Jose Maria de Vasconcelos, called "Taur Matan Ruak"  (two piercing eyes) had been elected, supported by the National Congress for the Reconstruction of Timor-Leste (CNRT) party. As I write this report, the results of the parliamentary election have not been confirmed, but it seems that the CNRT is the winner.

These elections are the last before the departure of UNMIT (UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste), scheduled for the end of 2012.

Elice Higginbotham, a volunteer with the US-based advocacy organization ETAN (East Timor and Indonesia Action Network), organized a team of international volunteers for the parliamentary election (Marie-Florence Bennes from France, George Ereu from Uganda, Emily Evans from Australia and Max Surjadinata, Jill Sternberg and Elice herself from the US). Within the two weeks before the parliamentary election, each volunteer has been incorporated into one of three Timorese NGOs (Fundasaun Mahein, HAK, La’o Hamutuk), to assist with each group’s electoral work.

Fundasaun Mahein (FM)

I spent my first week with Fundasaun Mahein (FM), whose Director is Nelson Belo. FM is located in a southern area of the capital, Dili, in a three-room house. Every Monday, Nelson Belo and FM’s staff have a meeting to organize the work of the week.

The main focuses during the two weeks preceding the parliamentary election are :

- The campaign.
- Security, and the comparison between small and large parties during the electoral process.
- Comments about Security.
- The influences on political life.

Twenty-one political parties/coalitions are standing in the parliamentary election. FM asks them “to reach levels of political maturity for the conduct of exemplary, vigorous and informative elections”. FM thinks that “Political parties must ensure they present their political programs in all sectors, so that they can be accessible to people and so that voters can develop an informed opinion and are therefore better equipped to ask questions when meeting politicians. FM wishes for not only a peaceful election but also one that is rich in debate and ideas” .

Regarding the aim of Fundasaun Mahein, during the first week of my stay, as an international observer, I attended public debates (Partido Unidad Nacional, PUN), political party meetings, a meeting at UNMIT with a representatives of UNMIT and of civil society organizations held on Tuesday 26 June 2012 .

La’o Hamutuk briefing for International Observers

Dili -- On Wednesday 27 June 2012, the NGO La’o Hamutuk invited international observers, press and others to a briefing about the coming election and the main questions facing the 21 political parties/coalitions, covering the topics which are the most critical to the future of Timor-Leste.

“The NGO La’o Hamutuk has monitored the development of this country since 2000. We research and analyze past and current realities, and future possibilities in several fundamental sectors.”

This briefing allowed the observers to have a large view of “Rights and Sustainability in Timor-Leste’s Development” and to ask questions relating to election and to the economic and political situation of Timor-Leste.

Orientation Session for Observers

Dili, Saturday 30 June 2012 -- The NGOs represented were: HAK, La’o Hamutuk, Fundasaun Mahein, ETAN; a representative of each NGO introduced her/his association.

HAK was founded in 1996, for human rights assistance. In 2012, it considers that the election differs from the preceding ones: first, because it is the commemoration of ten years of independence; second, because it marks the end of the mission of the United Nations in December 2012.

For HAK, Timor-Leste needs more democracy. The election is an important process, it must be without violence. People must be free to participate. The observers’ role is to ensure a good process of voting. They have to be attentive to the political parties’ influences.

La’o Hamutuk was established in 2000.

- One focus is to monitor and advocate regarding the development process.
- Another focus is what happens within governance, how fights among parties affect governing.
- La’o Hamutuk analyses all sectors of government policy (agriculture, finance, economic…).
- La’o Hamutuk interviews political leaders and makes information available through the media.
- La’o Hamutuk uses the internet to reach more people and broaden debate.

Charles Scheiner, one of the founders of La’o Hamutuk, clarifies that the Timorese people exercised free choice in 1999, but, after the referendum, the Indonesians destroyed the country. 2012 represents a critical point of change. What will happen during the next five years?

Fundasaun Mahein was created in 2009, after an national and public consultation.
Its main focus is Security and Defence. The defence force and the police (PNTL) must be more professional, taking responsibility both for security and stability. Fundasaun Mahein’s focus during the election is the security process. How are security forces involved? How is the civilian population protected?

ETAN was founded in 1991 after the massacre of Timorese during a commemoration at the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili. Indonesian troops opened fire and killed over 200 people. ETAN has been present at elections from the beginning of Timor-Leste’s independence.

Several points were discussed during the meeting, such as:

- How do political leaders use their influence?
- How can people vote without knowing a party’s political program ?
- Are people conscious of participating in state building?

At the end of the meeting, Jill Sternberg explained what Electoral Observers need to know before and during the Electoral Process.

The week of the Parliamentary Election

This week has been marked by the last preparations for Election Day. I have been transferred to the NGO HAK. On Tuesday 3 July, all the national and international observers relating to HAK attended a meeting opened by Rogerio, HAK’s director, and by Sisto, working with the observers.

Timor-Leste is comprised of 13 districts. HAK will send observers to seven (Dili and Atauro Island, Baucau, Viqueque, Aileu, Ainaro, Ermera, Manatuto); three international observers, Marie-Florence, George and Max, will be with the teams, respectively, in Ainaro, Viqueque and Baucau.


We must be aware of actions taken by the police and the military. We must note any wrong regulation taken by the security forces.

The briefing, for all the HAK’s Electoral Observers, was about the logistical support (transport), the technical aspects, and their role, rights and duties of observers during the Electoral Process.

Deployment outside of Dili was planned from Thursday, 5 July, to Sunday, 8 July, for the observers going to Viqueque, and from Friday, 6 July to Sunday, 8 July, for the observers to Baucau and Ainaro.

Rogerio pointed out another main focus we have to remember: security. We must be aware of actions taken by the police and the military. We must note any wrong regulation taken by the security forces.

According to the Electoral Law, three days before Election Day will be silent time. The campaign period is finished.

On Thursday 5 July, another meeting is held for the observers who are going to the districts, to finalize the preparation for the journey and for the election.

A briefing for international observers was held Wednesday, 4 July, by STAE, the Technical Secretariat for Electoral Administration. The role of STAE was presented, then the evolution of the electoral process in Timor-Leste and the electoral registration, both historical and technical information. It was clearly stated that the electoral process follows international standards.

On the road to Ainaro

I left Dili on Friday, 6 July, 6 AM, with Rogiero, Edi and the driver.

To reach Ainaro, we have to follow Maubisse road (70 km from Dili). Maubisse is a town at the altitude of more than 1400 m., lying at the foot of the highest mountain of Timor-Leste, Mt Ramelau. After Maubisse, we drove 13 km to the village of Aituto. There, we have to take a road to the east to reach Ainaro (40 km south of Maubisse). The distances seemed to be short. In fact, because of the poor condition of roads, we have been obliged to drive five hours before reaching Ainaro.

Ainaro is the capital of the Ainaro district. There are four sub-districts -- Ainaro, Hatu-Builico, Hatu-Udo and Maubisse -- and 21 villages. Based on information from STAE, there were 38 polling centres and 50 polling stations in Ainaro district.

On the road, we went through Maubisse, where there were 10 polling centres, and to Aituto, then to the sub-district of Hatu-Builico, at Mauchiga and Mulo. At the end, we arrived in the sub-district of Ainaro, where there were 10 polling centres. We stopped at the polling centres of Ainaro Vila, where we spent the night in order to be at the opening of the polling centre the next day. Along the road, we have just seen some FRETILIN (Revolutionary Front of an Independent Timor-Leste) flags in two villages, but no campaign posters, except small ones on private houses.

[2] Report for the Fundasaun Mahein on meeting hold in UNMIT, by Marie-Florence Bennes

Parliamentary Election

7 July 2012

Ainaro district observation

Report from Marie-Florence Bennes

General information

Ainaro is the capital of the Ainaro district. There are four sub-districts and 21 villages; The sub-districts are : Ainaro, Hatu-Builico, Hatu-Udo and Maubisse.  

Based on information from STAE, there are 38 voting centers in Ainaro district.

Rogiero-Suares (from HAK Association, based in Dili) and I arrive In Ainaro on the eve of Election-Day.  Along the road, we have seen a few FRETILIN flags in one or or two villages, but no campaign posters, except small ones on private houses.

Election Day Observation

We begin our Election Day at the opening of the Voting Centre, located in the Escola Venancio Fras on the main road, VC number 00045/0047.  To avoid crowding, the president (a lady) of this VC divided it into two classrooms.

At 6:15 AM, she begins to open the materials box in the first classroom, checks it, then does the same in the second classroom. Voting Centre staff, wearing pink Tee-shirts and caps, are present for the opening. Just before the official opening, the ballot boxes are sealed (two seals on the side, one on the top), with the number of VC clearly indicated on the boxes. At 8:00 AM, a VC staffmember reads the numbers on the seals publicly, and the president and observers write them down.  There are two international observers (from Australia) and about ten national / local observers attending the opening. Political party members wait outside.

Two police officers, one woman and one man, are stand outside at the official distance (25 m.).


Before the public enters to vote, members of VC staff vote first, then the police/woman/man (without their guns), then local and national observers.


Less than ten persons are waiting to vote.

In the second classroom there are 10 members of VC 7 (women & 3 men).

Outside the classroom, I don’t see the number of the VC. The instructions for voting are glued on the window outside the classrooms.

 Outside, the atmosphere is very quiet. Less than ten persons are waiting to vote.  

 A group of military come to vote, and three more police officers; they enter before civilian voters.

The second VC we visit is Sede Juventure VC Number 00044/0046.  We arrive at 8:35 and leave at 9:30 AM. Inside this VC, the instructions for voting are clearly posted on the walls. Outside, before the entry, the list of each party with their candidate members is posted, without colour, logo, or symbol. Nobody seems to be interested by this list. There are neither campaign signs, nor campaign activity.


The president of this VC is very active. He helps an old lady who has difficulty knowing how to proceed. She seems to have problems in her head. She is laughing and all observers and public laugh with her.

Two international observers (from an Australian association) are sitting here. They have attended the opening and plan to be in this VC for the closing and the counting. They say that the opening went OK, without any problem. The general atmosphere is good. Eight local/ national observers are also present. 

When we ask police staff if two policewomen/men are enough to take care of the VC, the answer is always the same: Ainaro area is a safe and peaceful place, so, it’s not necessary to have more people. The headquarters is very close, so it’s easy for them to get reinforcements quickly, and a UN patrol is available if it’s necessary.

The atmosphere is friendly. An old blind man is helped by his son. After having obtained the president’s authorization, the son takes the initiative to vote instead of his father. The father cannot put the ballot paper in the ballot box. His son puts his father’s finger in the indelible ink.

In this VC voters stay outside in two lines, quietly. The problem is that there is no protection against the sun or the rain and no seats for old or disabled people. More people stay around this area, talking in small groups. We see no sign of aggressiveness or any attempt at influencing the voters.

I notice that each of the Ainaro VCs are accessible for voters with disabilities and those who has problems are helped either by a member of his/her family or by VC staff member.

At 10:30 AM, we drive to Cassa, a village of the sub-district Ainaro, arriving at 11:30 AM at VC number 00046/0049.

There are very few voters in the first VC we visit there. Nobody is waiting to vote.

There a two policemen outside and a 4x4 UN police car. The village is quiet. Groups of people, mostly men, are talking together. At about 100 meters from the VC a FRETILIN flag flies; this is the only sign of campaigning.

There are ten VC staff, six are women. 1701 voters are registered. As no voters are present at the moment, some members of VC wait outside. The voting booths are positioned the wrong way, facing the VC staff. One of the voting booths is near a window where anybody can see the person voting and what s/he votes. There are two or three high steps to climb to get inside the VC, so it seems very difficult for old or disabled voters to have access.

Outside, the list of candidates and parties are on the wall, without any sign or logo.

Two local observers stay in the room, waiting. No national, nor international (except Rogerio-Suarez and me).

The second Cassa VC we visit is  EP Lias 00047:0050, located in a wooden school building at about one kilometre from the village. It stands on a small hill. There are three classrooms, but just one is used. To climb here is difficult, even impossible for disabled or old people. Here there are more VC staff than voters. Some stay at home, others are working in their gardens,” complains a VC staff member.

A political party representative comes and introduces himself. As there is no voters present, he leaves.

As the ballot box is facing the wrong way, it’s impossible to see the VC number. As soon as I ask to see it, the staff in charge of the ballot box apologizes and turns it around, smiling.

During the hour we stay in Cassa, we see only two persons voting.

The last villages we visit are Manutasi (VC Nb 00048/0052) and Soro (VC Nb 00048/0053). It’s 12:30 PM.

At Soro VC, a European Union car is parked outside, and an international observer leaves quickly the place. We immediately see why. Most of VC staff are outside, lying on the grass or talking together. Just one STAE staff (a lady) takes care of indelible ink and two others people sit on a chair, talking. Nobody takes care of the ballot box.

When I want to take a picture, a staffperson comes and tells me it’s forbidden. I explain to him that we have authorization, except in the voting booths, as long as we don’t disturb the voters. But the photo is not allowed.  During this discussion, some staff members leave the garden, enter the classroom and sit at their places.

We return to Ainaro to attend the closing and then the counting.



The two VCs of Escola Venancio Fras (nb OOO45/0047) close at 15:00. Nobody comes late and asks to vote after the closing.

As the president has to divide her time between two classrooms, the second one has to wait she has finished in the first one before beginning the official closing at 15:07.

When the second polling place is officially closed and the seal put on the ballot box, the president returns to the first classroom to fetch the ballot boxes.  During this time, the second classroom is organized to become the Ballot Counting Center (BCC). Papers, with the numbers and name of parties, are put on the blackboard. Three tables are put in the middle of the classroom to deposit ballots and count them.

Other tables are lined up under the windows and in front of the blackboard with clearly identified spots for each party. Chairs face counting table and the blackboard where two STAE staff are stationed to mark the result as each ballot is read. Most of the other staff stand behind the tables where the ballot papers are deposited. The Ballot Counting Centre is well organized and clear.

Transfer of materials from the first classroom material to the second

A policeman accompanies the men carrying the two boxes (ballot box and materials box). They are followed by all the people from the first classroom. The policeman does not enter Counting Center, but waits outside with his colleague.

The atmosphere during the closing and transfer is quiet. Nobody tries to intimidate either staff or observers.


Before the beginning of counting process, one party observer notices that there is a mistake on the party list put on the blackboard concerning the party number 7; the name is spelled incorrectly, so the mistake is corrected.

The 15 STAE staff are at the tables where the ballot papers are placed after they are read. There is no count of unused or spoiled ballot papers.

At 15:50, the counting process begins with the verification of seal numbers on the first ballot box. A staff member empties the ballot box, so that all can see that it is empty. Then, five staff begin to unfold the ballot papers, face down, so  it’s easy to check that they each have a stamp on the back.

The first difficulty is between the name of two parties: PDN and PTL. The man who reads off the ballot paper reads only the name, not the number of the party’s position on the ballot.  Because he is not clearly understood, he changes his method and reads first the number of party, them says the name.

The unfolding process is done quietly, seriously, without any stress, as is the case throughout the counting process. Inside, public and observers stay very quiet. We can hear the rustle of the ballot papers as they are unfolded. When the unfolding finishes, the reading of the ballots begins. The reader goes slowly, taking his time, showing each ballot paper to the public. As each ballot is read out, another staff member places it in the spot for that party.  Only one invalid ballot paper is contested by a party observer. The president gives her a reclamation sheet, and the contested ballot is recorded.


The process for the second ballot box begins at 18:00.  A new reader announces the choice on each ballot.  Outside, more people come to attend the counting process. The atmosphere is quiet, well controlled.

Two policemen sit near the outside windows.  From time to time a UN policeman comes and checks if every thing is ok. There is no trouble in Ainaro.

When the final count is announced, there is no reaction amongst the public and the observers. Party agents and observers agree on the results, the president completes the results form. The ballots cast for each party are placed in marked envelopes.  


In my opinion, even if the voting process seems to be clear and transparent, without any violence or pressure against the voters, it’s difficult to be sure that there were no irregularities.

1)     The biggest problem happened after lunch time, when there were no more voters in Voting Centres. So, VC members went outside to talk, smoke, have a break. In the Soro village (VC Nb 00048/0053), there was nobody taking care of the ballot box. 

2)     The second problem happened during the preparation of the Ballot Counting Center. The voting material from the second classroom was put either on or under a table, near the windows. Nobody counted the number of signatures in the voting list, or the number of unused or spoiled ballots (which were put on a table, with the seals). The electoral materials were not put in the materials box, but under a table. The materials were placed in their box after the end of the counting, without any check.

3)     The counting process began without any verification of the election materials.


I saw no one counting the signatures in the voting list, nobody counting and comparing the ballot papers and the number of voters.

4)     I saw no spoiled ballots, anyone counting the unused ballots, but only saw the unused ballots being stamped; but this was not finished before the beginning of counting.

5)     I did not see what happened with the record for closing polls, nor the record of the final counting. The president stayed in front of the window, back to the observers and public; it was impossible to see what she wrote, on which paper. At the end of counting she gave a copy of the record to each party representative, and one copy was put on the outside door.

6)     I saw no one counting the signatures in the voting list, nobody counting and comparing the ballot papers and the number of voters.

7)     Regarding the security issue: Local policemen are reinforced by UN police. Many CNE and STAE members or observers attended the entire process. Just a few international observers attended the process in Ainaro: one group from Australia (whose city has a link with Ainaro), two European observers, and some observers with a national NGO.

8)     After the counting, when all the process was finished, the ballots and materials boxes were put in the UN police car. Two policemen/women drove directly to the CNE office where all boxes were collected.

9)     The CNE office stands near the police office. All night long, policemen protected them.

see also

ETAN Volunteers Observe Timor-Leste Parliamentary Election 2012 (observations and reflections)

Letters of Support: H.E. President Dr. José Ramos-Horta; H.E. Ambassador Constâncio Pinto

Read Noam Chomsky on ETAN's 20th Anniversary

Read Noam Chomsky on 20 years of ETAN

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