|Subject: SMH/Hamish McDonald: Voting a
serious duty for East Timorese
also: [SMH editorial] President, Republic of Timor Lorosa'e
Sydney Morning Herald April 15, 2002 -front page-
Voting a serious duty for people of a new nation
Photo: Young East Timorese women wait for their turn to vote at a polling station in Liquica. Photo: AFP
International Editor Hamish McDonald reports from Maliana on the mood as East Timor went to the polls.
For Isobelle de Araujo it was a bittersweet day. In the early morning she had walked in her best dress to Mass, then joined thousands of other Maliana townsfolk at the public gymnasium to vote in her new country's first presidential elections.
At midday she was back in her family house facing the grassy square of this town close to East Timor's largely unmarked and unfenced border with its most recent ruler, Indonesia. With her children and her sad memories.
In the front garden under a flowering tree is a concrete grave, marked: Carlos Maia, born June 17, 1937, murdered September 9, 1999. Morto por Timor Leste (Died for East Timor).
Isobelle, a dignified woman with a soft voice, recounted how her husband had done military service for the Portuguese, then fled to the forests and hills with the resistance for two years after Indonesia invaded in 1975, then surrendered and worked quietly as a local driver.
When the East Timorese were finally given a say on their future in 1999, Carlos found a job as a handyman with UNAMET, the United Nations mission supervising the ballot, but then found himself and other local staff scapegoated by violent Jakarta-backed militias who mostly shrank from attacking foreign staff.
Even before East Timor's overwhelming vote for independence was announced, UNAMET decided to withdraw its staff from Maliana because of mounting militia violence. Carlos was one of about 45 left behind.
On UNAMET's advice, they took refuge in Maliana's police compound on September 3. In a formal agreement with the UN, the Indonesian Government had promised to commit its police and military to security of the ballot.
Five days later, on September 8, the Indonesian police at Maliana stood back and let militia members enter their compound, where they set about with guns and machetes to slaughter the UN staff. None survived.
Isobelle and the rest of the family rented a taxi the next day, and joined over a quarter of a million East Timorese being driven across the border by the militia in a scheme to discredit the UN ballot. "We had no choice," she said. "If we stayed we would have been massacred."
Isobelle was one of the first to return from West Timor, in October 1999, finding Carlos's remains and burying them in the garden, before patching up her burnt-out house and opening a simple bamboo-sided cafe at the side.
"We think of before - it makes us a rather regretful," Isobelle sighed yesterday when asked about her feelings on East Timor's historic day, which precedes formal independence on May 20. "But things are better now. Under Indonesia life was more comfortable, but we felt sick at heart."
A high proportion of East Timor's 430,000 eligible voters turned out yesterday to chose between the charismatic former resistance leader Xanana Gusmao and the leader of a short-lived independence attempt in 1975, Xavier do Amaral.
Voting was treated as a serious duty, with families attending church and then lining up to vote at polling centres in schools and offices, run by the new Independent Electoral Commission.
At midday in Maliana's main voting centre, its chief electoral officer, Hipolito Sarmento, said he was almost out of ballot papers after an early rush of voters, although outlying polling stations were still drawing crowds. Thousands of refugees had returned in recent weeks, he said. "Even up to Friday they could get identity papers which allow them to vote."
The border remained open yesterday, said Corporal Patrick Zrno, heading a patrol of Australian peacekeepers, on guard at Batugade road junction, a kilometre back from the main border crossing. Counting the seven days until their battalion, 2RAR from Townsville, ends its latest six-month spell, the soldiers cleaned their rifles as locals chatted.
Although the battalion will be replaced by another from Australia, the virtual end of Indonesian attempts to subvert East Timor's independence through militia infiltrations means the number of UN peacekeepers will drop sharply over this year, from 8,000 to 2,500 if conditions remain peaceful.
Apart from occasional military patrols, poll security was provided by civilian police. Beneath the historic Portuguese fort at Balibo, also occupied by Australia's 2RAR, hundreds of men and women pressed forward in a queue marshalled by young local police trainees under an Australian Federal Police officer, Peter Dilley.
The quietness of the day has created concerns about a whispering campaign aimed at encourag- ing abstentions and spoiled ballots, attributed to Fretilin party rivals of Mr Gusmao, who is expected to sweep the polls.
In East Timor's adopted political system, most day-to-day powers are concentrated in the prime minister and cabinet drawn from the parliament, which is dominated by Fretilin and whose candidate for prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, has said he would be casting a blank ballot.
Aside from some important powers of appointment over judges and prosecutors, the president's role is largely symbolic - but a very high vote could give Mr Gusmao the political authority to argue with the prime minister and take policy initiatives.
President, Republic of Timor Lorosa'e
There is no one person who more personifies East Timor's long, difficult struggle for independence than the former guerilla commander, Xanana Gusmao, who spent 17 years in the mountains fighting Indonesian troops and another seven years languishing in an Indonesian jail. It is more than fitting that presidential elections this weekend - the last step ahead of the proclamation of the independent "Republic of Timor Lorosa'e (East Timor)" - were certain to confirm Mr Gusmao as the new nation's first President. The only other candidate, Mr Gusmao's friend, Francisco Xavier do Amaral, says he took part only to promote the "spirit of democracy" by offering an alternative choice.
Xanana Gusmao, 56, commands immense respect among the 800,000 or so East Timorese, whose small half-island territory endured 300 years of Portuguese colonial rule, and a brief, self-proclaimed independence ahead of Indonesia's bloody 1975 invasion. Indonesian rule was repressive and deeply divisive. The final chapter was particularly brutal, as Indonesian-trained militia squads orchestrated a campaign of murder and destruction following an overwhelming pro-independence vote in the 1999 United Nations-run referendum. At that time, Mr Gusmao, then under house arrest in Jakarta, implored his people not to fight back, no matter how extreme the provocation or personal loss. Since then, Mr Gusmao's personal campaign for reconciliation, and against retribution, has made an immeasurably important contribution to the rebuilding of many fractured communities.
These days, Mr Gusmao is a reluctant leader. After decades of hardship, he wants to return to his coastal town to farm. It is fortunate that those around Mr Gusmao were able to persuade him to stand for the presidency. East Timor badly needs the unifying force of a widely respected figure. So exhausting and costly were the guerilla war and underground political struggle against Indonesia that independence was viewed by many as a kind of "nirvana", or final destination. In reality, independence is just the beginning. Another monumental effort is needed to build the institutions which will stabilise the nation. When an independent East Timor is proclaimed next month, it will be without a public broadcaster or Internet provider, with few lawyers to draft essential legislation, a serious shortage of trained personnel to fill key bureaucratic positions, and deep uncertainty about the nation's income.
Beyond the practical issues of governance lies the political legacy of the long independence struggle. The new administration is in danger of being corrupted by those who suffered and now believe they should be rewarded with business opportunities or government jobs. The political spectrum has also, understandably, shattered in the absence of a common enemy. The majority Fretilin party, a movement Mr Gusmao once led against the Indonesians, discreetly campaigned to reduce his majority because it fears his personal popularity could usurp its power base in parliament. The best outcome for East Timor, however, is a balance of power in which both institutions - the parliament and presidency - are continuously checked.