|Subject: SMH: Suffrage starts at home
Date: Sat, 17 Jul 1999 09:28:18 -0400
From: "John M. Miller" <email@example.com>
Received from Joyo Indonesian News:
Sydney Morning Herald Friday, July 16, 1999
Suffrage starts at home
Registration of Timorese voters begins today. JON MARSH talks to the man whose job it is to convince refugees in Australia that it is safe for them to vote.
AGIO Pereira is returning home to East Timor for the first time in 25 years. In the next few weeks, he will attempt to pick up the tattered remains of his lost youth and rebuild his shattered country, both devastated by more than two decades of war.
Pereira has lost most of his family. His late mother was arrested, detained for four years and tortured; he believes his brother was killed by being thrown from a helicopter. As for his homeland, if and when the Indonesian military packs up and leaves, the Timorese will be starting almost from scratch.
But first, Pereira, 42, executive director of the East Timor Relief Association and a major player in the resistance movement, must complete an important and difficult challenge, perhaps the most significant in all his years in exile.
He must find, cajole and persuade all his countrymen and women in Australia to register and vote in next month's pivotal referendum.
The ballot will determine whether the people of East Timor want autonomy within Indonesia - which invaded East Timor in 1975 and annexed it a year later - or want to move towards full independence.
Under the terms of the United Nations-brokered May 5 agreement between Indonesia and Portugal, East Timorese are entitled to vote in the referendum, even though they live overseas.
On paper, it looks simple. In reality, it is a formidable task as many of the estimated 20,000 exiles in Australia - part of the total projected global electorate of 480,000 - have an instinctive distrust of authority.
Registering and voting in elections is not something they are used to doing, so funds are being raised for a voter education campaign to explain the basics of how to vote, and stress that it is a secret ballot.
"People are quite nervous. They need a lot of convincing," says Pereira. "The Australia vote is critically important because the margin [of victory] is what we are working on.
"If the vote is only 55 per cent against integration, it is a weak political statement and it can create a lot of trouble in Jakarta. Numbers are very important."
Pereira has been busy spreading the word by any means he can - on radio, by leaflet, the Internet and at public meetings. The message is simple: you are not at risk and it is your duty to vote.
"In Australia you have about 1,500 refugees who still have bridging visas," he says. "Their immediate reaction was that they were scared to vote. They think that because the Government has kept them here for five years and is always looking for a window to throw them out, they think that if they vote they might be expelled from here.
"That is not the case. We have to explain the legal implications of the vote. We have organised information sessions in the western suburbs with legal experts. Hundreds of people turned up. They feel more comfortable now.
"You have to tell the people why their vote is important. They say 'What the heck, it is only one vote, I'm not going to bother going all the way to register'. But it does make a difference because from a patriotic point of view, your single vote can expel Indonesia from East Timor.
"It is a moral duty for those in Australia. Compared to those back home we are better off. One single vote is more important than 100 protest industries."
The Australian Electoral Commission is opening nine registration and polling centres: three in NSW, four in Victoria and one each in Perth and Darwin. Similar arrangements were made for South Africans in Australia in 1994, but this is a much larger and more complex exercise. Because of the unstable conditions in East Timor, the date for voter registration to begin has already changed four times.
Yesterday, despite concerns about intimidation and security, the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, said registration of Timorese voters would start today. Annan said he would make another assessment on the security situation in East Timor halfway through the registration process on whether it can be completed and the ballot held as scheduled on August 21 or 22.
Annan had delayed the start of registration out of concerns that Indonesia had not taken measures to control anti-independence militias who have staged attacks against civilians and UN officials in the territory.
The Timorese diaspora is far and wide, and potential voters can be found everywhere from other parts of Indonesia to New York and Madagascar, Portugal and the Philippines.
Although Australia is the major population centre, registration will also take place in Indonesia, Portugal, Macau and Mozambique in a bid to attract another estimated 12,000 voters.
To be eligible, voters have to be at least 17, born in East Timor, or have at least one parent born there. People married to East Timorese can also vote, creating some interesting anomalies.
Indonesia's Information Minister, Lieutenant-General Muhammad Yunus Yosfiah, is entitled to vote because his wife is from East Timor. The former Special Forces soldier led the incursion into East Timor in October 1975 and has been accused of supervising the killing of the five Australian-based newsmen at Balibo. This week, Yosfiah called for the sacking of civil servants in East Timor who supported independence.
Pereira shrugs. "The process is more important," he says. "He has said he will vote for integration with Indonesia, which is not surprising given his position."
THE NERVE centre for the operation to inform and educate the East Timorese in Australia about the election process is a drab but spacious three-room office in Liverpool. The furniture consists of a few donated chairs, and the fax and phone sit on a table awaiting connection.
On Wednesday, there was enough room for five-year-old Nuno Horta, nephew of the resistance leader and Nobel prize-winner Jose Ramos Horta, to scamper around to his heart's content. Natalina, his grandmother and Ramos Horta's mother, kept an eye on him while Pereira worked the mobile phone, discussing last-minute details.
If all goes to plan, the doors will swing open this morning and the office should be full of people inquiring about how to register. The process is fraught with difficulties.
Almost all voters will be refugees of one sort or another. Many fled after the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre in Dili and do not have birth certificates and other important identity documents required to register.
Facilities will be provided so affidavits can be sworn to support applications. There are no postal ballots so some will face long journeys to both register and cast their vote.
Although convinced that almost everyone in Australia will vote for independence, Pereira detects a generational divide on the question of returning to the homeland.
"There are two attitudes," he says. "The older generation never felt established here and want to go back. They want to die there and be buried there. They can't even afford to buy a piece of land to bury themselves here. The younger generation who have good English and friends here, the question is what are they going back for, can they work there? It is very important they do return. There is so much to be done."
That is perhaps an understatement. Whatever the result of the referendum, East Timor is desperately poor. There have been regular reports that Indonesians working in government departments including hospitals, clinics and schools are leaving, fearing revenge attacks after Jakarta's 23-year often brutal rule.
The health system is in bad shape, schools are not functioning well, there is a growing refugee problem and the military and the militias are determined to make life difficult right to the end.
"[Indonesia's] President Habibe wants a big pro-independence vote," says Pereira. "It is his policy and elements of the military are doing their best to undermine that policy.
"The military are looking for revenge against their own government. Defeat is difficult to swallow after 23 years. The East Timorese people are the meat in the sandwich."
For the quietly spoken Pereira, the journey home after so many years will be an extraordinary experience. He left East Timor when he was 18 to study in Portugal, the former colonial power. While he was away, Indonesia invaded.
"The whole world that I grew up in was no longer there. I couldn't see all those people I said goodbye to when I left. Many of my relatives are buried in graves marked with only a rock. We plan to bring them back to where other relatives are buried.
"It is a very close family who all live in the same area. All my generation are gone. I ask my nieces, who is still alive. The war has made us closer to each other, that's the human strength."
There is no self-pity in the voice of this senior member of the National Council of Timorese Resistance who seems certain to play a key role in the future of his country. To him, the nightmare has been evenly shared.
"It happened to almost everyone. Families destroyed. Destroying the family make-up was part of the Indonesian army strategy."
Back in the Liverpool office, young Nuno, oblivious to the significance of the moment, is teasing the photographer by pretending to be shy. The older generation has no doubts where the future lies.
"We are going to choose our own future after 23 years," says Jose Mak, 67, a former farmer and carpenter. "I'm grateful to Australia but East Timor is my home. Physically I am here and I am happy, but my mind is back in East Timor. That is where I belong."
For more information, call the East Timor Relief Association on 98228225.