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East Timor Anticipates Its First Independent Elections Thursday

By Richard C. Paddock

For 24 years, Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos Horta campaigned around the world for an end to violence in this troubled territory. On Sunday, he brought his message to 300 villagers preparing to vote in East Timor’s first free election.

“If the people of East Timor are fighting each other, then this freedom is nothing,” warned Horta, who is foreign minister in the territory’s transitional government. “If you fight each other, it will start the future of this country in darkness.”

East Timor, which has been administered by the United Nations since Indonesian militias devastated the territory two years ago, is moving steadily toward full independence next year.

On Thursday, voters will elect a constituent assembly that will be charged with writing the country’s first constitution and, most likely, will become its first parliament.

While no one expects serious violence to erupt, East Timorese leaders want to ensure that the territory casts itself in the best possible light.

“In this, the first free election, the message we can send to the world is we understand how much we need a democratic environment to discuss our problems and to work together,” independence leader Jose Alexandre Gusmao said.

The charismatic Gusmao, popularly known by his nom de guerre, Xanana, is widely expected to become the former Portuguese colony’s first president. Ending months of speculation, he announced Saturday that he will run when a presidential election is held next year.

Initially, the prospect of any election where political parties would vie with one another was greeted with apprehension by the East Timorese.

In a March poll by the independent Asia Foundation, the top two concerns of voters were riots (32 percent) and violence among party activists (25 percent).

Voters’ fears can be easily traced: East Timor has had bad experiences with political expression over the past quarter of a century.

Indonesia seized the eastern half of Timor island in 1975 after Portugal prepared to pull out and East Timorese political parties began fighting among themselves. Civil war broke out, paving the way for Indonesia to invade and seize the territory -- an occupation never recognized by the United Nations.

Two years ago, Indonesia granted permission for a U.N.-sponsored vote on whether East Timor should be allowed to form its own country. A resounding 80 percent of the population voted for independence.

When the vote was announced, militia gangs organized by the Indonesian military ran amok, killing 1,000 people and destroying 80 percent of the buildings in the province.

About 250,000 of East Timor’s 800,000 people fled, although many have since returned.

Order was restored only after the United Nations sent in troops and took over administration of the territory. About 9,000 peacekeeping troops remain, many of them guarding the border with Indonesia, which controls the western half of the island.

“I think there is still a lot of tension, because people can’t help but associate this election with events of the past,” said Carlos Valenzuela, the United Nations’ chief electoral officer. “If we have a peaceful election, that is the most important outcome.”