The popular consultation on the future of East Timor, held Aug. 30, 1999, was marred by numerous instances of intimidation and violence prior to the vote. Nevertheless, on balloting day eligible voters turned out in impressively large numbers - more than 95 percent according to preliminary reports - to express their opinion in a well-administered and largely peaceful exercise. At the same time, however, violence or the threat of violence overhangs a process of which the consultation was only an early part.
Consistent with its mandate, the Center has taken a strictly neutral and non-partisan approach toward the substantive questions involved in the act of popular consultation organized by UNAMET and held on August 30. The Center's long-term observers produced six weekly reports documenting their findings during the registration and campaign phases. Nine short-term observers joined them after August 24 to monitor even more closely the final campaign period leading up to the popular consultation.*
Peaceful Conduct on Ballot Day
The Carter Center's observers were impressed by peaceful conditions and the lack of violence either witnessed directly or reliably reported to them at the majority of polling stations visited on the day of the popular consultation in East Timor.
This finding has specific significance for the sub-districts of Dili, Los Palos, and Maliana, where security conditions in recent days had deteriorated and violent acts had been widely anticipated by UNAMET.
In Suai, reconciliation organized by local priests and presided over by Bishop Belo diffused hostilities between opposing factions in the district of Covalima. This could provide a model for other areas of East Timor.
High Voter Turnout
Preliminary reports state that voter turnout across East Timor was more than 95 percent of nearly 450,000 registered voters. This extremely high level of participation occurred even in the context of serious pre-electoral intimidation, harassment, and violence (including murders) reported by The Carter Center in earlier public statements and attributable primarily, but not exclusively, to pro-integration militia.
In many places, voters lined up hours before the 6:30 a.m. opening of the polls. In other locations, many voters arrived the previous night and waited for the polling stations to open the next day. Thousands of voters, including many elderly people, walked great distances to cast their vote.
UNAMET Administration of the Ballot
In general, Carter Center observers reported that UNAMET staff did an excellent job in administering the ballot. With a few exceptions, polling stations opened on time, with all electoral materials present in sufficient quantity. UNAMET staff, with very few exceptions, ensured the secrecy of the vote, with voters being processed in an orderly, efficient, and timely manner.
Of particular note, the Indonesian police cooperated with UNAMET civilian police at nearly all the observed polling stations to ensure a peaceful and orderly balloting process.
UNAMET's East Timor local staff appeared well-organized and dedicated. Their conduct in circumstances of considerable risk and tension remained highly professional.
Incidents of Violence
Even before the registration period, and through campaigning, the popular consultation process was marred by unacceptable levels of violence and threats of violence, which included killings, injuries, house burnings, and intimidation.
While the reality of balloting day fortunately did not match earlier fears, serious acts of violence did take place. The Center's observers found that armed militias favoring the pro-integration position were more responsible for these abuses than supporters of independence. Nonetheless, abuses unquestionably occurred on both sides.
Of great concern was the murder of a local UNAMET staff member in the Ermera region, immediately after the closing of the ballot. In several instances, The Carter Center's observers witnessed UNAMET local staff banding together to travel out of the polling area after receiving threats to their safety.
Apart from tension and violence on polling day itself, casualties and violence occurred during the four days leading up to the ballot, including the following:
- In Dili on August 26, fighting erupted between pro-integration and pro-independence supporters. At least five people from both sides died as a result, some of whom were killed by pro-independence elements
- In Los Palos on August 27, a prominent supporter of the National Timorese Restistance Council (CNRT) was murdered. The Center's observers received credible reports that the killing was the work of pro-autonomy elements: possibly even including the government district chief. Local CNRT leaders fled the town, and by midday on the 30th they had not returned to vote.
- In Memo, just outside the town of Maliana, pro-integration militia killed two men and burned down at least 22 houses on August 27. Arsonists also burned down houses in Ailco, Dili, and Liquica during the week leading up to the ballot.
Intimidation and Harassment
On polling day itself, UNAMET staff felt obliged to close seven polling centers as a result of well-founded fear of intimidation. In none of these cases, however, did the affected polling stations remain closed for more than two-and-a-half hours.
In some areas Carter Center observers directly witnessed instances of pro-integration militia intimidating voters. In others, in others they saw individuals instruct people how to cast their vote. In most of these cases, UNAMET civilian police (and on occasion, the Indonesian police as well) successfully intervened to persuade these people to desist from this type of disruption.
Several occasions amounted to improper influence. In Liquica, for example, the start of a funeral procession organized to mourn a pro-autonomy supporter killed during the previous day coincided with balloting underway in an adjacent building. The presence in the procession of at least 40-50 militia members was intimidating to voters waiting nearby.
In another example, a villager in the Tapo area rang a village alarm bell after being threatened by pro-integration militia members. As a result, at least 300 voters fled the area. The polling station closed for nearly half an hour. UNAMET officials later reported that most of those who fled later returned to the polling station.
In some polling stations throughout East Timor, Carter Center observers witnessed various problems involving the control of enthusiastic crowds waiting to vote, especially during the early morning hours. UNAMET officials generally requested help from the Indonesian police to control the crowds - a step that appeared to violate UNAMET rules requiring police and others to remain at least 100 meters from polling station perimeters at all times. (In The Carter Center's view, however, the beneficial cooperation between UNAMET and local police outweighed any negative impact of the police intrusion.)
In a few areas, UNAMET did not have equipment necessary to check voters for indelible ink. In one station, UNAMET officials told Carter Center observers that nine duplicate ballots had been cast - a result of clerical errors by local staff.
In the village of Maliubu, Carter Center observers on two occasions witnessed UNAMET local staff guiding elderly voters into the polling booth and doing the voting for them. When made aware of this serious violation, UNAMET election officials repeatedly instructed local staff to cease such activity.
Post-Ballot Reconciliation Efforts
While gratified by the absence of major disruption to the August 30 vote, The Carter Center takes the view that the just-concluded act of popular consultation must be seen within a larger context of political transition in East Timor. Democracy, let alone reconciliation, does not arise from one credible act of electoral participation. The basic task is reconciliation: contending groups, long at loggerheads, must seek new and peaceful ways to achieve democratic governance.
Despite underlying tension and a climate of fear, UNAMET and the Indonesian police achieved a considerable degree of security for the electoral exercise conducted August 30. The next steps, however, and whatever the result of the voting may be, point toward a more demanding period - one in which old adversaries must begin to accommodate themselves to a new and hitherto untried environment - one in which the Indonesian government, the international community, and local political forces must construct an orderly transition process.
Up to now, the performance of the various consultative mechanisms has been mixed. In some areas, district-level Commissions for Peace and Stability (known as Sub-KPS) created to reach accord on local codes of conducts and other confidence-building measures have exceeded expectations. In Baucau, for example, the Sub-KPS achieved a distinct improvement in relations between contending forces. In other districts, however, the KPS has been almost entirely absent.
What is clear is that future reconciliation remains a matter that the East Timorese must achieve among themselves. Outsiders cannot dictate the result. In particular, the encouraging degree of cooperation achieved with the Indonesian police force in many localities on polling day points to new opportunities to try to consolidate on-the-ground security in East Timor.
As we reflect on the importance and largely peaceful conduct of the August 30 ballot, we cannot ignore the violence and intimidation that permeated the pre-ballot period and then resumed in some areas immediately after the polls closed. Such acts are unacceptable and must cease. Not to do so amounts to a betrayal of the courage displayed by the East Timorese people on August 30th and fails to fulfill the obligations agreed to by all parties.
End Note: Carter Center personnel visited all but one of East Timor's 13 districts during the pre-ballot period. On polling day, the 15 Carter Center election observers, comprising seven teams, visited seven of East Timor's 13 districts, 27 sub-districts, 43 polling stations of the 700 stations located within those centers. The districts visited by Carter Center observers included Baucau, Bobonaro, Covalima, Dili, Lautem, Liquica, and Viqueque.
While the delegation believes that the cross-section of polling centers visited was indicative of the territory as a whole, it is important to acknowledge that the sites visited are only a sample of centers in the territory.In both Dili and the regions, observers met with representatives of Indonesian civilian, military, and police officials; East Timorese pro-integration and pro-independence political leaders and supporters; militia members; Falintil representatives; UNAMET officials; representatives of Timorese and international non-governmental organizations; diplomats; and journalists.