Subject: NDI report on focus group discussions in East Timor

New Report: “Timor Loro Sa’e is our nation”

The National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (a U.S.-based NGO), supported by the East Timor NGO Forum’s Working Group on Electoral Education (KKPP) and funded by The National Endowment for Democracy (NED, a U.S. government-funded program) recently completed a report entitled

“Timor Loro Sa’e is our nation”

which describes issues raised in 14 focus group discussions held in East Timor on questions relating to elections, constitutions and democracy during February, 2001. The full 26-page report is available [as PDF files] in English, Bahasa Indonesia, and Portuguese at The following is the executive summary:

A majority of East Timor’s citizens have never lived in a democratic political system and familiarity with several basic democratic concepts is lacking. However, central to the call for independence by the Timorese resistance movement was a demand for the establishment of a democratic state and political system. In other words, while many East Timorese citizens may not be able to say exactly what democracy is, many certainly know and are prepared to say what it is not. It is important to build upon their experience, local knowledge and cultural traditions to support democratic practices.

In February 2001, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) conducted 14 focus groups in East Timor. This focus group research was conceived, given the limited amount of time available, as one way to widen the views and perspectives available to policy makers and those taking part in public debate. NDI also hopes that this research will inform future civic education activities with a deeper understanding of the knowledge, attitudes and practices of the East Timorese people. As part of the planning process of its own civic education program, NDI considered it important to determine attitudes towards and experiences of democracy, past and future elections, political parties, local governance and the position of women in the political processes.

This report provides an insight into the thoughts and concerns of the East Timorese people at a critical time when the transitional political agenda is being formulated and its implementation planned. It is not intended to be a comprehensive study of public opinion or the political process in East Timor and should not be interpreted as such. It is designed to be used in conjunction with other information sources and surveys planned or underway. As public opinion is constantly evolving, reacting to new information and changing circumstances, the information in this report will require constant re-examination. As part of its long-term program in East Timor, NDI intends to conduct focus group research at regular intervals and make this information publicly available as one contribution to the ongoing transition in East Timor.

The focus group results clearly show that the people of East Timor have many well-developed ideas about democracy and the form of government they would like to see in their emerging nation. They express themselves in strong and direct language that sometimes might be lost in the translation. However, those who aspire to the political leadership of this new nation must not forget they are making demands for participation, not polite requests. At this crucial time in East Timor’s history, there is a sense of impatience in the direction and pace of East Timor’s transition. They have unrealized hopes and are looking for action rather than more words. They seek proof that they are being heard and demand active participation in the development of this new nation. To ignore the demands of the East Timorese people will only add to the burden of their frustrations.

The focus group research revealed that the people of East Timor have clear opinions regarding their country’s transition to independence. Key findings include the following:

•It is widely understood that elections are going to take place, but there is little knowledge of the nature or the timing of the elections or of the political parties and their platforms.

•Participants, including many women, indicated concern regarding the integrity of the elections and called for the presence of international and domestic election observers, heightened security measures and protection of the secrecy of the ballot.

•Participants support a multi-party system as a key part of their future, but are concerned that political party activity could spark violence.

•East Timor’s districts possess distinct regional identities based around geographic areas as well as local culture and language.

•Young people are worried about the lack of jobs, despite the apparent “economic boom” provided by the large international presence, particularly in Dili. High school graduates are resentful that only those who speak English or Portuguese and can use a computer are accepted into the civil service.

•There are common concerns about law and order issues, such as ongoing gang violence and women regularly mention the fear of rape.

•Many participants feel that consultation with UNTAET has been inadequate and want to actively participate in the political process, including the creation of the country’s first constitution. Participants clearly want more local ownership of the transition process.

•Those who know of UNTAET’s National Council do not regard it as being a representative body.

•East Timorese from the districts believe the existing political process is dominated by a Dili-based elite and that they have been left out of it.

While ideas of democratic government could find fertile ground on which to grow in East Timor, there appears to be a need for an inclusive process to create a common vision through wider participation in the East Timor’s transition to independence.

The information gained from these focus groups is summarized in this report. It is NDI’s hope that these insights will be useful to East Timorese NGOs, political parties, the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), international NGOs, donors, multi-lateral organizations and other groups active in East Timor’s ongoing transition process. NDI also believes that this information will be especially helpful to organizations, as religious groups, academia and the media, which are active in the area of civic education.

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