As the August 30 poll approaches, a sense of rebirth has descended on East Timor, writes Jill Jolliffe in Dili.
Apocalyptic predictions are rife in East Timor as the territory approaches political freedom after centuries of Portuguese colonial rule and a quarter century of Indonesian military repression.
Dead guerilla heroes will emerge from the jungle, it is said, to point the way to East Timor’s new generation of leaders. Such stories are usually accompanied by tales of uprisings to expel foreigners from East Timorese soil. The United Nations and its army of foreign staff may have paved the way for independence but they are not universally popular.
Eli Foho Rai Boot, a former guerilla and shaman known as Eli-7, recently called on his followers to assemble in Baucau to await the return of Vicente Sahe, a charismatic guerilla leader killed in 1978. Thousands loyal to his Sacred Family cult streamed into Baucau stadium from outlying regions to wait in vain for an entire day.
The prediction may have been wrong, but the sense of rebirth is all around. For the Fretilin party, the easy forerunner among 16 competing parties, voting day on August 30 looks like being a moment of sweet historical vindication for years of suffering.
The election is for an 88-seat Constituent Assembly entrusted with drafting the constitution. It is the first freely-elected parliament in East Timor’s history.
Fretilin has swept the countryside with well-organised rallies attracting tens of thousands, and UN analysts privately predict it will win around 45 of 88 seats, or 51 per cent of the vote. If its roller-coaster campaign success does translate into votes, it wants to declare early independence on November 28, a proposal which may cause shockwaves in the region.
The party leader Dr Mari Alkatiri confirmed this intention to Portugal’s Lusa news agency on Monday, saying that “80 to 85 per cent of the vote is already guaranteed”.
Fretilin’s determination to win is spurred by the need to show the world that its 1975 claim to have majority popular support was justified. Its supporters believe that if the international community in general, and the Australian Government in particular, had adopted a different policy at that time by supporting Portugal’s decolonisation bid and standing up to Indonesia, they may have won government then.
Instead, Indonesian paratroopers seized Dili on December 7, 1975, as the world looked on. Fretilin cadres took to the mountains to begin a long, bitter military struggle that was to continue until 1999.
They were East Timor’s best and brightest. Today, the survivors of their generation are the 50-year-olds who have done the groundwork for the Fretilin campaign. Their own youth is spent, but if Fretilin wins the UN-supervised poll on August 30, the victory will be for their children.
Among Fretilin’s younger candidates is Jose Lobato Goncalves, 29, the son of East Timor’s founding guerilla commander, Nicolau Lobato, who took to the mountains in the first hours of the Indonesian landing. His wife, Isabel, was caught in Dili and publicly executed on the wharf. She had been nursing two-year-old Jose before the troops dragged her away, but managed to thrust him into her sister’s arms at the last moment.
For his own protection Jose was raised by his aunt and uncle in an Indonesian cultural environment, his identity carefully hidden until recently.
The young Lobato stops briefly to greet me outside the Hotel Turismo, on the Dili foreshore, before rushing off to another Fretilin rally. “It’s great! We’re really campaigning hard!” he yells, bubbling with excitement.
It’s an eerie sensation, because I last saw him in Timor on almost exactly this same spot in the days before the Indonesian invasion. He was a toddler holding the hand of his handsome parents, oblivious of the cataclysm about to descend. Today he is a replica of his father in looks and intelligence and has an obvious future as a national leader. He is just one of hundreds of thousands of Timorese for whom life is resuming after 26 years: it is indeed a rebirth.
Whether or not Fretilin will win its expected
landslide, it appears there will be a large percentage gap between it and
the second-place party. Because 16 parties are competing, the vote of the
409,019 electors will be divided various ways, a problem aggravated by
the fact that most parties were only formed after 1999. There is no one
opposition party that can match Fretilin.
The serious contenders in the second rank are the Social Democrat Party (PSD in the Portuguese acronym) led by former governor Mario Carrascalao, the Democratic Party (PD), headed by student leader Fernando Araujo, the radical Timorese Socialist Party (PST), led by Avelino Coelho da Silva, and the nationalist Timorese Democratic Union (UDT), led by Joao Carrascalao. The Timorese Social Democratic Party (ASDT), formed by Fretilin founder Francisco Xavier do Amaral last March, may also make its mark, with support from traditional leaders in the central Ainaro region.
The UDT is the only other party with a long track record, having been Fretilin’s main rival in 1975, but the PSD was formed from a split in its ranks.
The election is not expected to be all plain sailing. The UN is taking seriously the possibility of disruption by political groups thought to be linked to Jakarta, operating mainly in the zone between Baucau and Viqueque.
“Our assessment is that it is low risk, but substantial enough to take precautions, so we will be beefing up security,” an official with the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor said.
Other political parties are also disgruntled by the UN’s automatic assumption of Fretilin victory.
“I think they are a bit biased,” said Carlos Sequeira, a Dili-based UDT candidate. “It’s still early yet and other parties may close the gap before the poll.”
His counterpart in Baucau, Agostinho Cabral, agrees with this. “People shouldn’t forget this is a traditional UDT area,” he said, “and not all parties are fielding candidates. Neither the ASDT nor the PST are running here, so we have a better chance. It may not be as clear-cut as people think.”
There are many variables which could still come into play. People seem strangely ignorant, for example, about who owns East Timor’s two leading newspapers, the Timor Post and Suara Timor Loro Sae. International organisations have worked hard to train young Timorese journalists in democratic traditions, but this is in vain if last-minute changes of editorial policy strongly influence the 78,000-strong Dili vote.
There is also the Megawati factor. The potential for last-minute destabilisation is not to be ignored, whether through the range of political groups said to be doing the bidding of Jakarta, or an upsurge of military activity at the border. That will depend on the long-term intentions of the new Jakarta government, notwithstanding recent assurances to the Australian Prime Minister.
Regardless of party, the overwhelming will of the Timorese is to claim their precious prize of political freedom after centuries without it. Having braved military terror to vote in the 1999 referendum, their collective determination is most likely to reduce attempts at provocation to pest value.
Jill Jolliffe is a freelance journalist who began her career reporting the Indonesian invasion of East Timor and is the author of two books on the subject. Her next book, Cover-Up: The Inside Story of the Balibo Five, will be published by Scribe Publications on October 16.
BD: Peoples' Participation - A collection of recent media releases, reports and articles
BD: FRETILIN - Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor / Frente Revolucionaria do Timor Leste Independente - A collection of recent speeches, documents, statements, news and reports