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IFET-OP applauds massive turn-out at UN voting process, condems Indonesian-backed militia violence and calls for UN peacekeepers

Dili, 02. September 1999

IFETIFET-OP, the largest international observer group in East Timor, reported today that the UNAMET administered voting process in a “free and fair” manner, but has serious concerns about the environment in which the consultation has taken place. IFET-OP observers visited 135 out of 200 polling centers. IFET-OP congratulated UNAMET for administering the registration, political campaign, and voting phases of the consultation process with such care and professionalism, especially the local staff who have faced enormous intimidation. The massive turnout of the East Timorese people on August 30 suggests that voters overcame the climate of fear, demonstrating their resolve to have an effective say in the political status of their homeland. Undoubtedly, this is a strong tribute to the courage of the East Timorese. However the vote took place amid an atmosphere of intimidation. Even more worrisome, threats and violence have increased significantly in the days following the vote. The Indonesian government has clearly not fulfilled its security mandate. Saskia Kouwenberg, IFET-OP co-coordinator criticized the Indonesian government’s handling of security following the vote. “The Indonesian government has clearly not fulfilled its security mandate,” adding, “We need to put and end to militia impunity, and to the fiction that the militia are a legitimate political force in East Timorese society.” As a result, IFET-OP strongly urged UNAMET to expand its mandate to include peacekeeping troops under UN command.

International Federation for East Timor Observer Project (IFET-OP): Report No. 9

IFET-OP Post-Vote Assessment of the Consultation Process

The International Federation for East Timor Observer Project (IFET-OP) considers the actual voting day, August 30, to have been generally highly successful. According to officials of the United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor (UNAMET), over 95 percent of registered voters went to the polls. This would be an incredible achievement in any country. That such a voter turnout took place in East Timor, a territory wracked by warfare and where intimidation and fear are rife, is all the more amazing. More broadly, IFET-OP acknowledges the excellent job that UNAMET officials have done in administering the consultation process.

Although IFET-OP believes that UNAMET administered the process in a “free and fair” manner, we have serious concerns about the environment in which the consultation has taken place. The context surrounding the consultation process was not free and fair. Rather, it was one characterized by violence, intimidation, and fear created by pro-integration militia groupsbacked by a significant portion of the Indonesian security apparatus. These efforts biased the context in favor of the pro-autonomy camp, and has perhaps distorted the outcome of the vote. Nevertheless, the massive voter turnout suggests that the East Timorese people overcame the climate of fear and terror to a significant degree, demonstrating their strong resolve to determine their political future and to resolve peacefully the contested status of their homeland.

The vote and the preceding phases of the consultation are steps in a process of self-determination, a process that has not yet concluded. For this reason, IFET-OP calls upon the international community to provide UNAMET with the political support and resources necessary to carry out its mission. Given the apparent inability and/or unwillingness of the Indonesian police and military authorities to protect the East Timorese population, this requires a significant strengthening of the international presence in the territory, especially in terms of security.

UNAMET Administration of Consultation Process

IFET-OP congratulates UNAMET for administering the registration, political campaign, and voting phases of the consultation process with even-handedness and professionalism. While IFET-OP did observe a few irregularities during these phases, it is our assessment that they were very limited in number and did not affect the outcome of the vote in any significant manner. IFET-OP has found no evidence to suggest any systematic bias on the part of UNAMET in favor of either the autonomy or independence options.

Suai Transporting the ballots

Suai Transporting the Ballot Boxes

Photo: Anna Voss

On voting day, IFET-OP had teams of observers present in each of East Timor’s 13 districts. As the largest international observer mission in East Timor, IFET-OP had more than 120 people in the streets and villages of the territory on August 30. The observers visited 130 out of the 200 (65 percent) polling centers, including all 31 sites in Dili. Our observers perceived no pattern of bias on the part of UNAMET staff. Instead, they report that the UNAMET staff was highly scrupulous in following correct procedures.

Ever since UNAMET opened its office in Dili, pro-autonomy forces have accused it of not being neutral. In addition to observing voter registration at numerous sites throughout the territory and its strong presence on the day of the ballot, IFET-OP observers witnessed dozens of voter education sessions in the days before the ballot in nearly all districts of East Timor. IFET-OP discovered no cases of non-neutrality, and thus no systematic bias on the part of UNAMET and its local East Timorese staff..

The UNAMET staff deserves commendation for their work especially since they faced intimidation from the pro-autonomy militias in most districts.

The Context Surrounding the Consultation Process

Terror stalked East Timor during the weeks preceding the May 5 accords that resulted in the UNAMET-administered consultation process. Paramilitary groups killed scores of pro-independence supporters in an attempt to undermine efforts to establish a process through which the East Timorese people would democratically determine their political status.

The arrival of UNAMET, international observers and journalists significantly deterred militia groups using violence and intimidation to try to disrupt the consultation process. Nevertheless, paramilitary groups, with support from significant elements of the Indonesian military, continued to commit acts of violence, to intimidate the population, and to create a general climate of fear.

As IFET-OP has repeatedly reported over the past few weeks, this climate was not conducive to a democratic process. Pro-independence forces were not able to campaign publicly in many areas of East Timor. Across East Timor, there were threats of violent recriminations against those voting for independence. Fears of a bloodbath if the independence option wins the vote, a scenario often put forth by the militias and numerous Indonesian government officials in East Timor, continue to resonate with the population. The increase in paramilitary violence over the last few days only reinforces this sense of foreboding.

Effect of Violence, Intimidation, and Fear on the Outcome of the Ballot

IFET-OP cannot state with any certainty the effect of this context on how individuals actually voted. Nevertheless, there is little question that fear and intimidation weaken the democratic process.

Given that the pro-Indonesia militia groups and their backers in the Indonesian government have been responsible for the vast majority of the violence, intimidation, and threats, the context surrounding the ballot was biased in favor of the autonomy option. It is for this reason that IFET-OP fears that this biased context may have caused a significant amount of pro-independence individuals changing their vote to avoid the violent aftermath of the ballot threatened by elements of the pro-autonomy camp if independence wins. At least two voters in Pante Makassar (district of Oecussi), the site of much recent violence on the part of paramilitary groups (see IFET-OP reports 7 and 8), volunteered to IFET-OP observers that they had voted for the autonomy option out of fear, despite their desire for independence.

In terms of the voting day specifically, it is our assessment that security at polling places was generally quite good, and that the areas around the sites were largely free of intimidation. There were polling places, however, where violence and intimidation took place, quite possibly significantly lessening the pro-independence vote at these sites.

In Abani (Oecussi district), for example, IFET-OP observers saw dozens of militia members, armed with machetes and wearing pro-autonomy shirts, only a few meters from the one entrance and surrounding the perimeter of the voting site. The militia members menacingly urged those arriving to vote in favor of autonomy.

At the Dato polling station in the town of Liquica, 40 members of the Besi Merah Putih (Red and White Iron) militia assembled just outside the voting center at approximately 9am. After about 30 minutes, the militia left in a convoy of vehicles travelling in the direction of Maubara. Throughout the day, BMP members in newly-issued red berets drove around the polling center on motorcycles and in trucks. Between 2 and 4pm, 8-10 BMP members parked and remained in their truck only 30 meters from the polling site, in clear view of the voters. The Indonesian police made no effort to disperse the militia.

In Gleno (district of Ermera), militia members began shouting at voters waiting in line around 12pm. Around the same time, 15 militia members entered the square around which polling stations were located, and started shooting into the air with homemade guns. They also started throwing bricks at the polling stations, some of which went through the walls, leading voters to flee the site and injuring at least three individuals. The polling center closed down for approximately two hours.

While such incidents were arguably isolated, they are concrete manifestations of the climate of terror that permeates the consultation process. Undoubtedly, the resulting context entered into the thinking of individual voters as they considered how to cast their ballots, and whether or not they felt free to vote according to their conscience.

Conclusion: Overcoming Fear?

Suai Election day 1999

Election Day in Suai 1999

Photo: Anna Voss

The massive turnout on August 30 suggests that voters overcame the climate of intimidation and fear, demonstrating their resolve to have an effective say in the political status of their homeland. Undoubtedly, this is a strong tribute to the courage of the East Timorese people.

While the participation of over 95 percent of registered voters in the August 30 ballot is a victory in itself, it cannot hide the fact that a pervasive sense of insecurity permeated the entire process because of the activities of paramilitary groups and the impunity and support granted to them by the Indonesian military.

The security provisions under the May 5 accords have proven to be woefully inadequate. This has become even more apparent in the context of the escalating violence in the few days that have passed since the August 30 ballot.

It appears that the militias now have an even freer rein than before the vote, exercising their power at Dili’s airport and harbor, and at roadblocks throughout the country. This clearly systematically undermines the security of the population.

The militias engage in these activities largely unrestrained by the Indonesian military and police authorities. It is inexcusable that militia groups can attack civilians with impunity as they did in Dili yesterday (September 1) in neighborhoods near the UNAMET headquarters. This suggests a systematic effort by Indonesian authorities to destabilize East Timor. This is clearly an unacceptable situation.

A member of the Chilean official observer mission today told IFET-OP that a UNAMET civilian police officer had informed him of a discussion he had had with the head of the Indonesian military in the district of Liquica. When asked by the UNAMET police official why the militias were allowed to maintain armed roadblocks near the towns of Liquica and Maubara, the military head replied that militias were using the roadblocks to check for illegal weapons and to disarm people.

The May 5 accords assign responsibility for security in East Timor to the Indonesian authorities. They have clearly failed in fulfilling this responsibility. The international community can thus no longer entrust security matters to the Indonesian government. For this reason, IFET-OP appeals to the political forces in Indonesia that support a peaceful political process in East Timor to accept an increased international security presence.

By not providing adequate security resources to the UNAMET mission, the international community has taken great risks with the lives of the East Timorese people. That massive bloodshed has not yet occurred does not mean that security measures are adequate. It is clear that the East Timorese people live in a state in which they fear for their lives. This is unacceptable and must change immediately if the UNAMET process is to continue in a peaceful and just manner.

Recommendations:

* That the international community, through the United Nations, quickly and effectively expand UNAMET’s mandate as it relates to security;

* That the United Nations greatly expand the number of civilian police officers and other necessary UNAMET personnel in East Timor;

* That the United Nations introduce armed peacekeeping troops into East Timor, preferably with the cooperation of the Indonesian authorities; and

* That these troops disarm and disband the militia groups, and then work for a general demilitarization of East Timorese society.

************************ International Federation for East Timor Observer Project Dili, East Timor tel. 62-390-321969 fax 62-390-321264

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