Subject: AU: Gusmao was worried but confident before independence vote

The Australian

August 30, 2004 Monday All-round Country Edition

Gusmao was worried but confident before independence vote

Sian Powell

WHEN the people of East Timor cast their votes for freedom five years ago, Xanana Gusmao, now president of the nation, was under house arrest in Jakarta. He could only sit and wait, hoping the Indonesian military and their militia proxies would permit the referendum to go ahead.

Mr Gusmao, a hero of the East Timor resistance who had spent years in prison, had no doubt the people would choose independence in the UN-backed poll, but the prospect of violence was daunting.

'I was very worried but very confident,' he says now, in his office in the Palace of Ashes in Dili. 'Confident because we knew it was very important to our future to decide on these things. I was worried in terms of the violence that had started before August 30, worried if people were not allowed to get to the voting places.'

The killings began as soon as Indonesia's then president, B.J. Habibie, agreed to allow the East Timorese to choose between independence and Indonesian rule.

For nearly 25 years, the East Timorese fought against Jakarta's annexation of their nation, but the military and militias believed they could be coerced into choosing to remain part of Indonesia.

Mr Gusmao was widely consulted by prominent Indonesians before the vote. 'I met people, important people,' he recalls. 'In the conversations, although they manifested confidence they would win, they were worried they be could be defeated.'

Despite months of smouldering violence, the day of the ballot was remarkably peaceful. The East Timorese voted in masses. Many walked kilometres to the polling stations and home unmolested.

The results were announced a week after the historic poll, showing 80 per cent of the East Timorese had chosen independence. Within 24 hours, Dili was in flames and within weeks a quarter of the country's population was deported. More than 1500 people were killed, and many thousands beaten, raped and robbed.

And now East Timor is poor but free. 'We live in a democratic environment,' Mr Gusmao says. 'It's more important than living in wealth, and not having fundamental rights as a human being.'

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