Subject: SMH: Fretilin opens conference

News And Features; International News

Revolutionary Front Turns Back To Mainstream By Mark Dodd 05/16/2000 Sydney Morning Herald Page 12

One of East Timor 's biggest and best known political groups, Fretilin, which spearheaded the bloody 24-year struggle for independence from Indonesia, yesterday began an historic conference to discuss its transformation from revolutionary front to mainstream political party.

The conference is expected to hear an unprecedented apology for political killings carried out by Fretilin between 1975 and 1978.

Fretilin, a Portuguese acronym for Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor , is the political wing of the armed independence group, Falintil, whose 1,500-strong armed fighters resisted Indonesia's occupation from 1975.

More than 2,000 people including grizzled war veterans, overseas supporters, radical splinter groups, students, church and women's representatives attended the opening ceremony in Dili yesterday.

Senior independence leaders, including Mr Xanana Gusmao, and Taur Matan Ruak, the current field commander of Falintil, were at the opening ceremony. There were also numerous supporters of the UDT ( Timorese Democratic Union), a party with which Fretilin once waged a brief and bloody civil war after an ill-fated coalition of the two groups dissolved four months before Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975.

``Fretilin comes from a resistance struggle but now we have to prepare ourselves to convert to a political party. We have to clarify how to make the transition from a resistance movement to a political party in a democratic way and pave the way for a democratic society,'' said Mr Mari Alkatiri, one of three surviving founders of Fretilin.

``I think this really is a defining moment that traces its roots back to 1975. It is reconciliation, but it is also the redefining of a resistance organisation.''

A Brisbane lawyer, Mr Joe Texeira, an East Timorese who fled to Australia as a refugee in 1975, told the Herald he believed the conference was a symbol of East Timorese unity for the future.

Fretilin still retains widespread support in rural areas, an advantage it has over other political parties. One group of old men had walked down from the hills to attend, including ``Senor Moroi''. Barefoot, dressed in a sarong and clutching a wooden staff, he introduced himself by pointing proudly to his battered World War II felt hat.

Mr Alkatiri estimated some 15,000 people had belonged to the former secretive network set up by Fretilin during the Indonesian occupation.

The five-day conference aimed to explain the reason for reforming into a properly constituted political party, he said, although there was still some resistance among splinter groups to dismantling its clandestine structure.

It was vitally important, however, that Fretilin prepare itself to contest UN-supervised elections tentatively scheduled for the end of next year.

``For Fretilin it is impossible to separate development and democracy,'' Mr Alkatiri said.

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