|Subject: GLW: Debate begins on Timor
Green Left Weekly, Issue #436 February 14, 2001
EAST TIMOR: Debate begins on transition process BY VANYA TANAJA
DILI — Public hearings held here January 14-24 to discuss the timetable for East Timor's transition to independence have revealed sharply differing views among East Timorese leaders over the political mechanisms to be used to bring into being a fully sovereign East Timorese government.
The public hearings were hosted by the National Council's Committee for Political Affairs and dealt with issues such as the sort of electoral system East Timor should have. The 33-member NC was appointed last year by Sergio de Mello, head of the United Nations Transitional Administration for East Timor, to debate and recommend legislation to UNTAET.
The NC-sponsored public hearings attracted considerable local media attention and public discussion.
NC president Xanana Gusmao had proposed that East Timor should become a self-governing independent nation-state by the end of this year. However, many of those appearing before the NC-sponsored public hearings, particularly the representatives of the pro-capitalist parties, argued against this claiming that ``the people are not ready'' for a freely-contested multiparty election to determine the composition of an independent East Timor's legislative and executive authorities.
Related to this is the issue of the proposed law regulating the activities of political parties. It was reported in the Timor Post that Avelino Coelho da Silva, the general secretary of the Socialist Party of Timor (PST), was one of those who spoke out at the public hearings in opposition to having any laws that would restrict the peaceful activities of political parties. He argued that parties should only have to register with the state authorities if they intended to stand candidates in elections. He warned that the state should not be allowed too much control over political parties.
Coelho has found an ally in Peter Galbraith, Cabinet Member for Political Affairs, who stated that parties' activities did not need to be regulated unless they broke the law by engaging in acts of violence. Others, such as Cipriana Pereira, Fretilin representative in the NC, argued that a law regulating the activities of political parties is needed to ``legitimise'' their existence and activities in the eyes of the common people.
It is certainly true that among large numbers of East Timorese there is suspicion and distrust of political parties. This reflects the legacy of the way in which the struggle for East Timor's independence from Indonesia was conducted, in particular, the subordination of all political differences — and the different class interests that they reflect — to the “national interest”.
Further, it is often implied by politically non-aligned nationalists that political parties were responsible for armed conflict between Fretilin and UDT in 1975, which Indonesia used as an excuse to invade East Timor. Regulating the activities of political parties is therefore seen as related to not allowing the recurrence of the “bloodbath” of the past.
However, part of UNTAET's mandate is to oversee multi-party elections. Galbraith, in his comments at the public hearing, stated that without “free and fair” elections, UNTAET could not terminate its mission in East Timor. This was not good news for many of those East Timorese who want to have legal restrictions on the activities of political parties since they also would like to see East Timorese nationals take over the running of the country from UNTAET.
Four East Timorese ministers in the transitional cabinet threatened to resign last December, expressing their frustration at being simply local window-dressing for the real governmental authority which resides with the UN Security Council and transitional administrator Sergio de Mello.
A proposal before the NC is that national elections be held to choose members of a constituent assembly to draft and approve a constitution for East Timor. This assembly would then go on automatically to become the new legislature. There are debates as to how many elections would be required (for example should the legislative body be separately elected and similarly, the president) and whether there are sufficient funds for the entire process including registration of voters, civic education programs and the elections themselves.
The extent and type of consultation with the people in drawing up the constitution have also been topics of debate. Views ranged from those who thought that only “intellectuals”, priests and “community leaders” needed to be consulted, but not “the water spinach sellers in the market, because they wouldn't understand” to those who argued that as many people as possible should be consulted.
An editorial in the PST's weekly magazine, Vanguarda, published during the hearings argued that preparation for the elections is the most important thing that UNTAET should be doing in East Timor; more important than setting up a police force, an army and property laws as these could simply be changed by a future elected legislature.
A democratically elected government was important, according to the editorial, to ensure that UNTAET would not simply pass on its mandate to a bureaucratic machine of its own creation.
The editorial criticised the formation of the East Timor Transitional Administration with its accompanying Cabinet, National Council and departments as simply a way to “close the eyes of the people” to the reality of the powerlessness of these bodies. Similar criticisms of these bodies have also been levelled in the December issue of Talitakum, the magazine of the youth organisation Renetil.
The PST has proposed that a “People's Committee” be set up, composed of members of the National Council, other parties not yet represented in the NC and representatives of other layers of society. This committee would be initiated by UNTAET and formed with the agreement of the National Council. It would draft the provisional constitution which, the PST argued, should only contain general concepts such as territorial boundaries, the name of the country, right of citizenship and so on.
The People's Committee and UNTAET would then appoint a provisional government and a provisional legislature (formed out of the People's Committee) which would draft political party legislation and organise the first general elections for a legislature and government that would take full political sovereignty over East Timor from UNTAET.
In his presentation to the public hearings, PST spokesperson Nelson Correia argued that this entire process should take a maximum of 18 months in total, with the provisional parliament and government in place by the end of 2002.
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