Fwd (GLW): EAST TIMOR: Debate begins on transition process

Alan Bradley alanb at SPAMelf.brisnet.org.au
Sun Feb 11 05:13:11 MST 2001

The following article appears in the current issue of Green Left Weekly

EAST TIMOR: Debate begins on transition process

DILI — Public hearings held here January 14-24 to discuss the timetable for
East Timor's transition to independence have revealed sharply differing
views among East Timorese leaders over the political mechanisms to be used
to bring into being a fully sovereign East Timorese government.

The public hearings were hosted by the National Council's Committee for
Political Affairs and dealt with issues such as the sort of electoral
system East Timor should have. The 33-member NC was appointed last year by
Sergio de Mello, head of the United Nations Transitional Administration for
East Timor, to debate and recommend legislation to UNTAET.

The NC-sponsored public hearings attracted considerable local media
attention and public discussion.

NC president Xanana Gusmao had proposed that East Timor should become a
self-governing independent nation-state by the end of this year. However,
many of those appearing before the NC-sponsored public hearings,
particularly the representatives of the pro-capitalist parties, argued
against this claiming that ``the people are not ready'' for a
freely-contested multiparty election to determine the composition of an
independent East Timor's legislative and executive authorities.

Related to this is the issue of the proposed law regulating the activities
of political parties. It was reported in the Timor Post that Avelino Coelho
da Silva, the general secretary of the Socialist Party of Timor (PST), was
one of those who spoke out at the public hearings in opposition to having
any laws that would restrict the peaceful activities of political parties.
He argued that parties should only have to register with the state
authorities if they intended to stand candidates in elections. He warned
that the state should not be allowed too much control over political

Coelho has found an ally in Peter Galbraith, Cabinet Member for Political
Affairs, who stated that parties' activities did not need to be regulated
unless they broke the law by engaging in acts of violence. Others, such as
Cipriana Pereira, Fretilin representative in the NC, argued that a law
regulating the activities of political parties is needed to ``legitimise''
their existence and activities in the eyes of the common people.

It is certainly true that among large numbers of East Timorese there is
suspicion and distrust of political parties. This reflects the legacy of
the way in which the struggle for East Timor's independence from Indonesia
was conducted, in particular, the subordination of all political
differences — and the different class interests that they reflect — to the
“national interest”.

Further, it is often implied by politically non-aligned nationalists that
political parties were responsible for armed conflict between Fretilin and
UDT in 1975, which Indonesia used as an excuse to invade East Timor.
Regulating the activities of political parties is therefore seen as related
to not allowing the recurrence of the “bloodbath” of the past.

However, part of UNTAET's mandate is to oversee multi-party elections.
Galbraith, in his comments at the public hearing, stated that without “free
and fair” elections, UNTAET could not terminate its mission in East Timor.
This was not good news for many of those East Timorese who want to have
legal restrictions on the activities of political parties since they also
would like to see East Timorese nationals take over the running of the
country from UNTAET.

Four East Timorese ministers in the transitional cabinet threatened to
resign last December, expressing their frustration at being simply local
window-dressing for the real governmental authority which resides with the
UN Security Council and transitional administrator Sergio de Mello.

A proposal before the NC is that national elections be held to choose
members of a constituent assembly to draft and approve a constitution for
East Timor. This assembly would then go on automatically to become the new
legislature. There are debates as to how many elections would be required
(for example should the legislative body be separately elected and
similarly, the president) and whether there are sufficient funds for the
entire process including registration of voters, civic education programs
and the elections themselves.

The extent and type of consultation with the people in drawing up the
constitution have also been topics of debate. Views ranged from those who
thought that only “intellectuals”, priests and “community leaders” needed
to be consulted, but not “the water spinach sellers in the market, because
they wouldn't understand” to those who argued that as many people as
possible should be consulted.

An editorial in the PST's weekly magazine, Vanguarda, published during the
hearings argued that preparation for the elections is the most important
thing that UNTAET should be doing in East Timor; more important than
setting up a police force, an army and property laws as these could simply
be changed by a future elected legislature.

A democratically elected government was important, according to the
editorial, to ensure that UNTAET would not simply pass on its mandate to a
bureaucratic machine of its own creation.

The editorial criticised the formation of the East Timor Transitional
Administration with its accompanying Cabinet, National Council and
departments as simply a way to “close the eyes of the people” to the
reality of the powerlessness of these bodies. Similar criticisms of these
bodies have also been levelled in the December issue of Talitakum, the
magazine of the youth organisation Renetil.

The PST has proposed that a “People's Committee” be set up, composed of
members of the National Council, other parties not yet represented in the
NC and representatives of other layers of society. This committee would be
initiated by UNTAET and formed with the agreement of the National Council.
It would draft the provisional constitution which, the PST argued, should
only contain general concepts such as territorial boundaries, the name of
the country, right of citizenship and so on.

The People's Committee and UNTAET would then appoint a provisional
government and a provisional legislature (formed out of the People's
Committee) which would draft political party legislation and organise the
first general elections for a legislature and government that would take
full political sovereignty over East Timor from UNTAET.

In his presentation to the public hearings, PST spokesperson Nelson Correia
argued that this entire process should take a maximum of 18 months in
total, with the provisional parliament and government in place by the end
of 2002.

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