|Subject: IPS: N. American E Timorese register
Date: Sat, 07 Aug 1999 10:03:36 -0400
From: "John M. Miller" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Inter Press Service
August 4, 1999, Wednesday RIGHTS-EAST TIMOR: U.S. TIMORESE REGISTER FOR FIRST VOTE
By Farhan Haq NEW YORK, Aug. 4
Without any fanfare but with high hopes, East Timorese across North America and further afield in Latin America are trickling into a small office in New York City to fulfill a lifelong dream: to vote on East Timor's status.
This morning, fewer than a dozen people entered the offices of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Manhattan to prove their credentials as East Timorese and register to vote on Aug. 30 on whether they wish autonomy under Indonesian rule, or independence.
Once registered, they face another trip here to cast their ballots as the IOM office is the only site for the Timor ballot in the entire Western hemisphere.
Because of the expense involved in travelling from Canada and even Latin America, few voters were expected to register in New York; but what those arriving at the IOM offices lacked in numbers, they made up for in enthusiasm.
"As a Timorese, I've been waiting for this moment all these years," said Isabel Galhos, who defected to Canada in 1994 while representing Indonesia at a youth program. "I hope this is the first sign of me going home within the year."
"This is the first time I am able to exercise the right to vote in my life," said Constancio Pinto, currently U.N. representative of the pro-independence National Council of Timorese Resistance, as he registered.
Pinto fled his homeland after the 1991 massacre of more than 270 people at a cemetery in Dili, the capital of East Timor. "I have been struggling for this right to self-determination for more than 24 years -- since I was 10 years old," he said.
The United Nations has faced an uphill battle in organizing the Aug. 30 ballot, particularly because pro-Indonesia militias have waged a campaign of violence and intimidation in the run-up to the vote.
At the same time, however, hundreds of thousands of people in East Timor have showed up at registration sites since voter registration began on July 16.
"People walked for hours...from the mountains, from the jungles, into registration centers," said Jose Ramos Horta, co-winner of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize and a leader of the pro-independence movement in East Timor. Despite the intimidation they faced, he argued, the East Timorese had made voter registration a success.
By Monday, the United Nations estimated that more than 410,000 Timorese had registered, with 400,000 of the registrations occurring in East Timor itself and the rest in centers in Indonesia, Macau, Mozambique, Australia and Portugal, as well as New York.
With registration extended until Aug. 6 within East Timor, and Aug. 8 in outside centers, Timorese leaders were confident that all those who wanted to vote would be able to do so.
Ramos Horta said he was "optimistic" about the vote, although he warned that it could be difficult to register thousands of Timorese displaced from their homes in recent fighting.
"I am still worried about the potential for fake registrations for Indonesians from West Timor, " the western half of the island, Ramos Horta said.
West Timor has been part of Indonesia for centuries, unlike East Timor, which was a colony of Portugal until it was invaded by Indonesia in 1975.
Ian Martin, head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in East Timor (UNAMET), said on Wednesday that "the indications are that very good proportions of the internally displaced have presented themselves, either by going back to their home areas" or registering in Dili or other locations.
He added that UNAMET had reinforced its registration centers near the border with West Timor, but conceded that "not very large numbers have (registered there) yet."
Martin said that the U.N. mission had installed several safeguards to prevent voting from non-Timorese or double registrations. "So far, we are pretty confident of the integrity of the register that is being produced," he said.
The Timorese who registered in New York all had to submit detailed information on their bona fides to be able to vote on Aug. 30. They had to be born in East Timor or have Timorese-born parents, or be a spouse of someone who fitted in one of those two categories.
One of the New York registrants, Eduardo de Assis, a Californian resident who left East Timor in 1946, registered along with his daughter Carol, a computer software teacher. He described his trip to New York as "just a little struggle" for East Timor.
Despite the costs and logistics of travel, the Timorese registering in New York had the advantage over other would-be voters in their homeland -- they did not have to face the threats and violence that racked the island state in recent weeks.
Amnesty International recorded more than 30 executions in the immediate aftermath of the May 5 agreement, signed in New York between Indonesia and Portugal, that paved the way for the August ballot.
The International Federation for East Timor, which supports self-determination and will help to monitor the vote, said in a report this week that it had evidence that pro-Indonesia militias were continuing to threaten the lives of any Timorese who might vote for independence.
"The conditions are not yet ripe for the vote itself," Ramos Horta said. But he remained confident that Indonesia would ensure security for the vote to proceed peacefully, or else it would suffer the consequences internationally for failing to do so.
"I think after the vote, the situation will be peaceful as long as the United Nations remains there," Pinto said. He dismissed the possibility of violence if, as expected, the East Timorese voted for independence. "We will try our best to create an environment of peace in East Timor, " he said.