A long road: East Timorese attain democracy one small step at a time

A long road: East Timorese attain democracy one small step at a time Canberra Times, 7 July 2001

As elections approach, East Timorese find that voting for independence was only a first step on the democratic road.

On the Air North flight from Darwin a young Timorese returning for the first time since the independence plebiscite looks at a list of political parties. “This is my party,” he says, pointing. “You know, for a long time the Indonesians arrested people for this word. They killed people and said it was because they were Fretilin. For me, Fretilin is the party of the people. Maybe not forever. Things will change. But for now, for this transition, we need them.”

Soon, the East Timorese will go to elections. The constituent assembly to be elected will shape the social and political landscape. At stake is the constitution of the new nation, as well as the date that independence will be proclaimed and the structure of the post-independence parliament.

The country has little experience of democracy. Given the confusion and division over the coming election, it is beginning to look as if in the framing of a rushed political timetable, the chance to develop a truly representative and inclusive government may have been squandered.

Fretilin, which formed the backbone of Timorese resistance, both politically and through its armed wing, Falantil, until 1998 when the non-partisan National Council of Timorese Resistance was established, is criticised as being “a front, not a party”. But it is for that reason that Fretilin has won such widespread support, and in the current raw political climate is likely to win a majority in the August 30 constituent assembly elections.

If it does, one outcome will be the — largely symbolic — restoration of the independent republic that was declared by Fretilin president Xavier do Amaral in 1975.

There are reportedly “many problems” within Fretilin, some of which have been evident in acrimonious exchanges in the media between Fretilin’s Central Committee and some recently emerged factional groups. The party is short on policy detail and does not represent the interests of all the groups that have been active in the 24-year struggle for independence. Nevertheless, Fretilin probably offers the best hope for unity in the immediate future of the independent East Timor.

Asked how to contact Fretilin, a member of East Timor’s National Council says, “Which Fretilin though? There are a few of them. It’s hard to know which is the right one.” The coming election is characterised by uncertainty, cross-purposes and confusion, and highlights all kinds of divisions in East Timor.

The broadest rift is between Timorese and the flood of foreigners who have arrived in, or are attendant on, the United Nations entourage.

Guido Gusmao Goulart, journalist with Suara Timor Lorosae, one of Dili’s two daily newspapers, says, “Maybe in UNAMET [United Nations Mission in East Timor] time the East Timorese people say that OK, the UN is the helper, and can help us. But at the moment some people are frustrated by UNTAET [United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor] … because all the positions in UNTAET [are filled] just by international staff, and East Timorese people they’re just in small positions that are not very good.”

While international UN workers live off an allowance of $US95 ($A183) a day, the average wage for East Timorese UN workers is $US5 ($A9.60) a day.

“[People] say that when UNTAET leave, we have a lot of jobs that we can do and we can get them,” Goulart says.

For many Timorese, unskilled in a suddenly open, unregulated economy, freedom is proving to be a hollow experience. Even among the best-intentioned foreign organisations, there is a tendency for pragmatism to overrun respect for East Timorese self-determination.

Fernando de Araujo, the former secretary-general of the student activist organisation RENETIL, says, “OK, we accept, we cannot avoid it — we need people to help us. But we don’t have to have the international NGOs come here and make proposals to UNTAET. Why? We have national NGOs. We, as national NGOs, we have to apply, we have to write proposals to international NGOs. It is not fair I think.”

Joao Carrascalao, president of the UDT party, was recently quoted in the Portuguese press as saying that mounting “frustrations” amongst Timorese over the slow pace of UN-led reconstruction were so inflammable that “the smallest spark could set off a fire.”

But while income disparity, lack of employment and the failure of the UN to physically reconstruct is fanning anti-foreign feeling, leaders such as Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos Horta are trying to convince the UN Security Council to extend the UN mandate for a year.

“We are not chasing instant independence,” Xanana was quoted as saying, in April. “We will be fully independent next year. But what we want from the UN is to inherit a country which can govern and administer itself.”

In an address to the UN Security Council in January, the UN General Assembly President, Harri Holkeri, discussed his understanding of the situation in East Timor after a visit that month.

“There is a clear gap between the expectations of the local population and what may be expected to be a painstakingly slow process of nation building,” he said. “This is a gap common in post-conflict situations. It exists both at the grass-roots level, echoed by the everyday concerns of the people … and at the political level, reflected by growing calls among the local political leadership for moves towards immediate independence.”

Dissatisfaction with UN control of the political process in East Timor does not just reflect impatience. Some observers, as well as many Timorese, believe that the UNTAET framework for democracy, like much of what is happening with the “reconstruction”, is not geared to the specifics of the situation.

For one thing the Westminster system may not be the most appropriate first-election model for a people with a country to build who are emerging from three decades of brutal occupation with organisational structures based on resistance.

Developed by UNTAET and the National Council under pressure to enable independence by the end of the year, the model is for the election, on August 30, of an 88-member constituent assembly, 75 of them political party representatives. Just 90 days is provided for the assembly to approve a constitution. Then, after the constitution and independence are proclaimed, the constituent assembly would become the Parliament. This transformation, however, is in question, with high-profile leaders, both Timorese and UN, now saying that a second, parliamentary, election is needed.

While some people, and political parties, see the coming election as one for the new Parliament, others look on it as the election of a transitional body to draft a constitution.

“For the East Timor Socialist Party,” says Avelino Coelho da Silva, the party’s secretary-general, “these elections are only for a constituent assembly … We endorse that there must be a second election for the legislative body of the East Timor independent state.”

“For sure this election will be very important,” says Mari Alkitiri, First Vice President of Fretilin’s Central Organising Committee, “It is not a transition. Transition will be over after the election.”

The August 30 election date is also uncertain, with many calling for its postponement.

Among the Timorese there is a division between those living in Dili who have access to the media —newspapers, television, radio stations and telephones — and those in the country, or “districts”, whose only source of information is Radio UNTAET.

Rural Timorese, among the poorest people in the world, have little understanding of political processes. Many of them are wary of political parties and elections, which, as a result of the 1975 civil war and the 1999 post-plebiscite devastation, they associate with violence.

A UN source says, “You are looking at a situation where there is not the same enthusiasm as there was in 1999, when all the people came out to register and cast their ballots. And now the confusion is — people are asking, ‘Why do we have to vote again? We already voted.’ And they don’t understand the political process. It’s a big task, explaining all these things to them.”

It is a task that is being tackled much too late. Although the UN’s civic education program has been running for some time through the media, an initiative to reach people in the districts was launched only in the last month. At a recent seminar organised by the human rights organisation Yayasan Hak, many participants reported widespread confusion about the election and the civic education campaign itself.

There is strong support, both within and outside the political parties, for the restoration of the independent republic proclaimed by Fretilin in 1975. For an indeterminate number of East Timorese, the republic, its flag and constitution are what they fought for throughout the Indonesian occupation and what so many people died for.

In the last week of April about 2000 people demonstrated in Dili. Over the week they marched through town several times and stood outside the UNTAET building, where they asked for an audience with Sergio Vieira de Mello. Their concerns included the lack of work for Timorese and the lack of progress in restoring infrastructure in the countryside. Their primary demand was that UNTAET recognise the 1975 republic.

The majority had come from the districts. They set up camp on the Dili foreshore. These are thin people, some barefoot and chewing betel nut. Many are dressed in woven tais, some older men wearing traditional headdresses and anklets of rooster feathers and carrying ceremonial swords. Between marching and listening to speeches, they pass time at their camp dancing to the music of gongs and drums.

The demonstrators belong to two splinter groups of Fretilin — the Council for the Preservation of the Democratic Republic of East Timor and the Association of Timorese Social Democrats, named after the 1974 incarnation of Fretilin.

“Well, we wanted to bring down our people,” general coordinator and spokesman of the Preservation Council Christiano da Costa said. “Not all of them because we don’t have enough room. We mobilise a few people in Dili to tell the UN transitional administration that the priority in East Timor is to consolidate the nation and then to go for elections.”

Da Costa describes the Preservation Council as “like [an] umbrella body, like CNRT [the national council of resistance], with the main objective restoration of our republic proclaimed in 1975.”

The Preservation Council opposes the UNTAET election program on the grounds that elections are dividing the country when unity is needed.

“We don’t think the Timorese, that the problem of East Timor is a constitution. The problem of East Timor is to have a consensual leadership — that’s very important in any newborn nation, or state,” da Costa says. In any case, the coming constituent assembly election “is unnecessary because we already have a constitution, a written constitution to be amended.”

While its platform is unity, the Preservation Council is considered to be a destabilising force. Its members have been involved in violent incidents — several of them fatal — and implicated in an attempt on Xanana’s life. The movement is also said to receive funding from sources in Indonesia, a claim da Costa denies.

The Preservation Council will not try to register as a party for the August election, but the Association of Timorese Social Democrats will. Led by Xavier do Amaral, Fretilin’s pre-invasion president, who is an enormously popular figure in some districts, the association intends to use Fretilin symbols and political ideology. Amaral says that he has established the party because Fretilin’s central committee has failed to unite the party.

But Mari Alkitiri, of Fretilin’s central committee (CCF), says, “We have been, for more than 27 years, bringing people together, setting up a policy on national unity, winning the war together, and this is our policy. We already decided to have the people together in a kind of national unity. It doesn’t mean that you are looking to have the people, all of them, as members of Fretilin. A national unity means that you need to respect the constitution, you need to have clear goals to be achieved, national goals that will serve the people, the nation, the state.”

While the Fretilin splinter groups may owe their existence to political naivety, opportunism, or possibly, more sinister motives, they highlight ruptures in Timorese society — division between those who stayed in Timor throughout the Indonesian occupation and those who left to live overseas; between the different groups who fought for independence and their differing understandings of that struggle; and ultimately between those who have power and those who have been left behind in East Timor’s new order.

The battle for East Timor’s independence was fought on several fronts — in the mountains by the Falantil forces and the local population who supported them; in the cities of East Timor and Indonesia by the student resistance and clandestine movement; and on the diplomatic front, led by Ramos Horta.

The claim that the 24-year struggle had as its centrepiece the independent republic and its flag is one historical understanding. It contrasts with the understandings of many who were in the student resistance.

Many students active in the struggle for independence feel marginalised now and are concerned that the constituent assembly will not be representative and inclusive.

Fromer student leader Fernando de Araujo says, “Many, including me, we don’t believe in these old parties, that they can represent our aspirations.”

Fretilin leaders are cagey about policies, which will be decided this month. The party is socially progressive, but has moved to the right on economic and agricultural issues. It has a policy of expropriating land that was bought or confiscated by Indonesians, but has dropped its 1975 plans to break up Portuguese-era landholding monopolies.

The official Fretilin is the only serious contender for a majority win at the August 30 election. While the splinter groups will split the Fretilin vote, they don’t represent a real threat to CCF, which has a membership of 200,000. The groups are, however, causing tension and confusion at a sensitive time.

One thing illustrated by the official Fretilin, in contrast with its offshoots, as it is by the UN itself, is the compromise required by real political power, and its inverse relation to freedom of speech.

“Of course, it could be better,” says Mari Alkitiri. “The regulation on political parties could be even better drafted, but these are the regulations that we have and we are going to work with them.

“The people basically know what they want at this juncture,” the UN source says, “and what they basically want is peace and stability, more than anything else.”


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