Passage to past elections: Timor-Leste chooses ballots over bullets

By Jeff Fischer

August 30, 2019   |   0 comments


Electoral violence persists as a tactic to influence election outcomes. In some cases, this violence emerges in such intensity that hundreds of lives are lost.

The newly independent Southeast Asian country of Timor-Leste is a case in point. During the 1999 Popular Consultant in East Timor, the vote for the territory’s independence, an estimated 1,400 people were murdered — making it one of the deadliest elections in history. Aug. 30, 2019 marks the 20th anniversary of the vote.

Located in Southeastern Asia on the east part of Timor Island, the small territory of East Timor, now officially named the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, faced significant barriers for decades in achieving independence.

For 24 years, the Portuguese controlled the territory of East Timor. In 1975, Indonesia invaded and occupied the area  and suppressed the independence movement of the Timorese people. During 25 years of Indonesian rule, armed and peaceful East Timorese groups struggled to overthrow the occupier.

However, a window of opportunity opened for the Timorese people to govern themselves.

Under the terms of an agreement on May 5, 1999, between the Republic of Indonesia and the Portuguese Republic, the Indonesian government agreed to allow an internationally-supervised but non-binding vote on independence from Indonesia.

But leading up to East Timor’s vote for independence from Indonesia, Indonesian military-backed militia incited violence, murder and threats to dissuade voter participation.

In August 1999, the Timorese people voted for independence from Indonesia in a popular referendum. UN administrators moved in soon after the vote and helped shepherd Timor-Leste to its eventual independence as a State in 2002.

During this important election, I served as the Chief Electoral Officer for the United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor.

The U.N. administered the electoral process and supervised the territory’s transition to independence, resulting in 99 percent voter turnout of the Timorese people.

Overcoming opposition

The Timorese freedom fighters were called the Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor (Fretilin). These fighters were met by Indonesian forces on two levels: Military and police; and government-sponsored militias. 

One U.N. military liaison observed that the overwhelming firepower of the Indonesians could have destroyed the Fretilin at any time. However, he speculated that the Indonesians wanted to keep Fretilin sufficiently visible to be deemed a threat and justifying the military presence on the island.

Additionally, local militia were established by the Indonesian government, which became the real anti-independence enforcers during the referendum campaign. It was speculated that members of the military donned to dress of local militia and joined in the action under those false pretenses.

While most of the deaths and displacements occurred in the post-election phase, the preparations for the vote were under constant fire from the local militia. 

Despite the frequent attacks and pushback, the independence movement had fought for decades to come to this point and proceeded forwarded.

Succeeding despite conflict

Recognizing that violence would be embedded in the process forward, the United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor had to make decisions looking at issues through a conflict lens.

There were four critical decisions which had to be made by our elections team.

First, voter registration had to be conducted for an electorate that was largely undocumented. The Timorese did not want to carry Indonesian identity documents, which were the only official ones available. As a result, we instituted a form of “social documentation” where Church authorities and local village chiefs called kampala desa were engaged to attest to the validity of identity claims. 

The Church authorities were generally selected as witnesses by pro-independence registrants; and the kampala desa were selected by the pro-Indonesian voters. The intention was to enfranchise many eligible electors as possible and to avoid the friction that would result in widespread disenfranchisement if hard copy documents were required.

Second, while voting by prisoners was not permitted under Indonesian law, I had the regulatory authority to draft enfranchisement rules. As a result, I granted the right to vote for Timorese political prisoners held in Indonesia jails. 

One of the leaders of the resistance, Xanana Gusmao, was a prisoner and I could not imagine an independence vote with his disenfranchisement. In 2002, Gusmao went on to become the first president of Timor-Leste.

Third, I banned a group of domestic observers because I believed that their sole purpose was to disrupt the vote on Election Day. These observers were recruited by militant groups in Jakarta and transported to Dili, the capital city of Timor-Leste, on an Indonesian naval vessel. 

Under the May 5 agreement, Indonesia and Portugal agreed to field a set of “official” observers, limited to 30 for each country. These observers were financed by the resources of their country and not United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor.

However, as these new cadre of domestic observers was subsidized by the Indonesian government through transport on a naval ship, I argued that this was tantamount to making them official observers, thus violating the May 5 agreement.  They were not permitted to participate in observation. 

Fourth, there was concern over vote tabulation. We did not want there to be retaliation in given areas because the result of the vote from the local polling station showed a pro-independence majority.

So, there was no accounting of votes by poll, but rather, ballots were mixed among all polling stations so that there would be no audit trail linking an outcome back to a particular polling station. The counting center itself became exposed to an attack at one critical point during the tabulation process. 

Independence despite intimidation

As the outcomes were announced, the militia began their attacks on known independence supporters and United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor staff.  I was not spared the violence and was shot at by a militia member while I was traveling in a U.N.-marked vehicle.

Despite this intimidation at the hands of pro-Indonesian militia and military alike, 78 percent of the Timorese electorate voted for independence from Indonesia.

The tragic aftermath was followed by a series of U.N., Timorese, joint Timorese/Indonesian investigations and court cases. A number of the organizers of the violence, both with in the military and the militia, were convicted.  However, these convictions were eventually overturned by the Indonesia Supreme Court, and this violence was consequently perpetrated with impunity.

Despite this, the country of Timor-Leste stands today as one of the world’s youngest nations, established through an electoral war of independence won by ballots over bullets.

Jeff Fischer is a Senior Electoral Advisor at Creative Associates International.

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