Subject: E.Timor: Sweet-talking rebels look to ballots not bullets for victory

South China Morning Post May 9, 2001


Sweet-talking rebels look to ballots not bullets for victory


Once branded a gang of dangerous left-wingers, Fretilin is out in the open and may be set to win through the ballot what it lost in 1975 with bullets.

The Fretilin flag is finally flying above its makeshift offices in Dili. The building was ransacked by pro-Jakarta militias in 1999, like the rest of the town, and the facilities at this "central committee" office are sparse. Even the telephone cannot be relied upon.

But it has just registered for the August 30 election and is quietly confident it will win.

Does this mean a return to the heady days of 1975, when Fretilin's military victory in a brief civil war sparked fears in the West of a "Southeast Asian Cuba"? No, says the party.

The Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor is talking sweetly these days. It says its 24 years in the wilderness has changed it. "Don't see Fretilin from its leaders. See it from its organisation. Its leaders have changed," said technical secretary Francisco Cepeda. "In the body of Fretilin, there are people who have left-wing ideologies and right-wing ideologies."

At an extraordinary congress in Sydney in 1998, Fretilin adopted a new party structure, looking ahead to the day when East Timor would finally be free of Indonesia's yoke. It consciously reflects the structure of government and includes local branches right down to village level.

No one in East Timor doubts that Fretilin will do well. Many expect it to gain an outright majority. Mr Cepeda says it is targeting more than that. It wants 80 to 90 per cent of the 88 seats on offer. It has planned a major party congress for early July, just before the start of campaigning. There, the party programme will be officially adopted and its leadership confirmed.

Should it get anything close to its target, it will be in a position not only to govern, but to dictate East Timor's new constitution. The constituent assembly that voters will be electing will have the task of drawing up a new constitution within 90 days. After that, it may transform itself into the territory's first Parliament.

"We are going to work hard to have control of Parliament," said Mr Cepeda, who like most of the party officers is currently working on an interim basis.

He is keen to put doubters at rest. If it does win a resounding victory, Fretilin will adopt a constitution that meets the aspirations of all Timorese, he says. It would not necessarily ban foreign investment, although there would be restrictions to ensure it worked to the benefit of locals.

Fretilin's leaders have indeed changed dramatically since 1975. Around 80 per cent was wiped out in the early years of the struggle against Indonesian rule. The party was nearly destroyed, until resistance hero Xanana Gusmao regrouped the remnants into a new fighting force in 1983.

But Mr Gusmao is no longer a member of Fretilin. And the Falintil guerillas he once commanded no longer serve it.

Its chairman today is Francisco Guterres, a former guerilla better known by the nom-de-guerre Lu-Olo. He was one of four other Fretilin leaders who reorganised the movement along with Mr Gusmao. Lu-Olo spent 24 years in the jungles. His Indonesian is limited because he never had the chance to learn it.

It is not all plain sailing, however. Fretilin's candidates will be running against people the movement fought in 1975. Some of them worked for the Indonesian administration. Some are suspicious that the Fretilin leopard has not really changed its spots.

And the party is split. Its 1975 leader Francisco Xavier do Amaral is back in town. Regarded as a collaborator by many after long years in Indonesia, he wants to claim back the party he says is his.

Today, Mr Amaral's supporters talk about him as the "de facto" president. But to much of the younger generation, who grew up under Indonesian rule, his name means nothing. The possibility remains, however, that he could split the Fretilin vote.

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