Subject: AFR: Numbers adding up for Timor independence
Date: Sat, 07 Aug 1999 10:07:02 -0400
From: "John M. Miller" <>

Australian Financial Review Aug. 4, 1999

Numbers adding up for Timor independence By Tim Dodd, Dili

The East Timorese are voting with their feet. In the rugged mountains in the interior of the territory, families have walked for hours, even days, to register for the UN-organised ballot on August 30 which will give them the choice between greater autonomy under Indonesian rule and full independence.

The threats by the pro-Indonesia militia groups, the widespread burning of houses and the fact that tens of thousands of people have been driven into refugee camps by militia intimidation have not kept the East Timorese away from the polling stations.

Voter registration closes today in the 200 polling centres established across East Timor and the turnout has met the UN's highest expectations.

By late yesterday 383,000 people had registered, compared with an original UN estimate of between 300,000 and 400,000 eligible voters.

Pro-independence activists are becoming increasingly confident. With nearly 400,000 people registered, they believe they are playing with a full deck. Despite the militia tactics, few of the pro-independence supporters have been scared away.

Leandro Isaac is the senior official of the independence group, the National Council for Timorese Resistance, in East Timor. (He is outranked only by Xanana Gusmao, who is held in detention by the Indonesians in Jakarta.) Isaac will not say directly what he thinks the result will be, Continued page 14 but he can't disguise his grin. He is happy to say he is "an optimist".

Independent observers agree with his assessment. The large voter turnout means that the independence forces are on the road to victory.

According to Carina Birelli, the UN's director of electoral assistance who is responsible worldwide for UN-organised voting, the "success is reflective of the will of the East Timorese to go to the polls".

"We have seen them travelling long distances in order to register ... whole villages organising themselves," said Birelli, who recently visited East Timor to assess the situation.

There is no doubt that many would-be voters are apprehensive. According to UN workers in the polling centres, sometimes the old people are sent in first. Then, when nothing happens to them, the rest of the family follows.

Of course, the high number of voters registered may mean there has been widespread multiple registration. But the UN's monitoring of the situation suggests this is not a major problem.

"It is precisely the very unevenness of the data which is reassuring for us. If it were homogeneous and at the same pace I would be extremely worried," Birelli said.

The East Timor capital, Dili, is a different place now compared with two months ago when the militia terror was near its height. Then the street life was subdued. Now the streets are busier and footpath hawkers are back.

The influx of UN staff, journalists, diplomats and workers for non-government organisations has given the economy a boost.

Dili's shopkeepers, hard hit when Indonesian professionals fled last year to escape the trouble, are doing much better. Dili's biggest supermarket reports its profits are up 25 per cent compared with six months ago, although supplies are becoming hard to obtain. The bakery has branched out into new products to appeal to the Westerners in town and turnover is up 20 per cent on six months ago. At the souvenir shop near the market, for months a favourite trouble spot for the militias, profits are up 70 per cent.

The town's few hotels are fully booked and private houses are taking up the slack, bringing windfall returns to their owners. To rent a house in Dili now costs about $US1,500 ($2,312) a month, and owners of the town's relatively few large houses have been quick to move out and cash in. Likewise, the owners of vehicles are getting nearly $US40 a day when they rent them out to journalists or film crews.

There are also more jobs for locals. The UN currently employs about 1,000 East Timorese and this figure is rapidly rising. It will peak at about 4,000 on polling day.

But the economic boost from the ballot and the UN presence will be temporary and, if independence comes, something will be needed to replace the estimated $100 million net cost that East Timor currently imposes on the Indonesian Government's Budget.

Florentino Sarmento, a widely respected pro-Indonesian activist who heads the local section of the Jakarta Government's Human Rights Commission, said that an independent East Timor would be "completely dependent on international charity".

A significant portion of it will come from Australia.

On his historic visit to Dili last Friday, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, said that assistance would be stepped up regardless of which side won whether the territory became autonomous or independent. But an independent East Timor will need far more aid than one still integrated with Indonesia.

This reliance on Western aid is often cited by pro-integrationist East Timorese as a reason to stay with Indonesia.

The leader of the notorious Aitarak militia, Eurico Guterres, held a street party recently in Dili which he said was to thank Indonesia for helping East Timor. In a one-hour speech to the hundreds of guests present, he acknowledged that independence would bring financial help from overseas.

"But you will be tied to Australia and the US. You will be slaves to them," he declared.

No such public campaigning is being done by the pro-independence side. They are lying low and, with the exception of several isolated incidents, have avoided provoking the militias or the army.

Isaac said that his side did not need to campaign. "We are not concentrating on the campaign because there has been a campaign for the last 23 years," he said.

Assuming the independence side wins the August 30 vote, there will be a dangerous interregnum. The pro-independence side will be celebrating its victory and many independence supporters will be seeking to settle old scores with the militiamen who have terrorised tens of thousands of East Timorese in the past six months.

But East Timor will still be governed by Indonesia, and security will remain in the hands of demoralised Indonesian soldiers and policemen whose primary thoughts will be about going home.

Worse still, the Indonesian forces might carry out a fighting retreat, under attack from the pro-independence guerilla force Falintil, to protect the evacuation of native Indonesians who wish to escape to West Timor.

A memo, addressed to the Indonesian Political and Security Affairs Minister, Feisal Tandjung, from one of his aides, gives credence to this fear. The July 3 memo, believed by Western governments to be genuine, admits that the integrationists are losing and forecasts a bloody payback against the army by Falintil.

Outlining one scenario, the memo said: "Nusa Tenggara Timur [the province that includes West Timor] must be made ready to receive huge numbers of refugees and their security forces. The evacuation routes must be planned and secured, possibly destroying facilities and other vital objects."

There was an indication this week that the militia no longer strikes fear into the hearts of East Timorese, as it did even several weeks ago. Early on Sunday morning there was a traffic accident in Dili between a motorcyclist and two militiamen, who were also on a motorbike. A dispute followed and the militiamen shot and killed the 24-year-old motorcyclist. An angry crowd then took revenge by stoning a nearby militia house and setting it alight.

When fear of the militias is lost, bloody paybacks could follow. The ideal solution would be to disarm the Falintil and the militias. But neither side will go first, and, in any case, the Falintil fear attack by the army if they surrender their weapons.

The UN has a fallback plan: to isolate the Falintil guerillas and the militia groups in cantonments. Falintil has agreed to co-operate and has selected four areas where it says its fighters have begun to assemble. The Indonesian army says it will ensure the militias do the same but, as yet, there is no evidence it is happening.

But reconciliation talks are taking place at various levels between Falintil and the militias, and also between the political leaders of both sides, to prepare for polling day and its aftermath.

On both sides, there are moderates who realise the futility of more conflict. Sarmento said that he was optimistic that "finally we have learnt from past mistakes that violence is not the solution to the process".

But there are those who have not learnt. In Maliana, near the border of West Timor where support for Indonesia is strongest, the bupati, or mayor, Guilherme dos Santos, encourages militia intimidation of UN staff and locals who try to register.

Can the radical elements be reined in in the dangerous period after the votes? Until Indonesia formally gives up sovereignty, unlikely to be before January 2000, no one expects it will accept peacekeeping troops, as desirable as they may be.

At the moment, the UN is negotiating for an increase in the numbers of civilian police advisers (now 270) and military liaison officers (50 at present) and hoping that goodwill prevails on both sides.

The last thing East Timor needs is another bloodbath. Alexander Downer said yesterday he was confident East Timor's independence ballot would take place on August 30 as planned. The poll has twice been delayed because of security problems, persistent unrest and logistical problems.

"I think at the moment, without wishing to sound too optimistic, things are looking a little more positive and I feel now reasonably confident that the ballot will take place on August 30," Downer told Reuters.

"If that happens, then I think we can look forward progressively to the East Timor issue finally being resolved," he said.

"A large number of people have registered and that, of course, is a very good sign."

Once they've registered, we're half way to resolving the problem."

Downer said he was reasonably optimistic that the vote would be fair.

"It's going to be held in a very difficult environment and frankly ... we can only do what we can to persuade the Indonesians that it should be a free and fair vote," he said.

"We've done an enormous amount to do that, and I feel they are responding better than was the case perhaps two or three months ago."

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