Emerging from the ruins, East Timor prepares for its first free election

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The Independent Online

Sitting among the wooden planks in a carpentry shop that doubles as her family's living room, Maria de Fatima Pinto is ready to run in her country's first democratic election.

"I wasn't going to do it. But then I realized I could use the support I have built up as a resistance leader to represent the people," said the former math teacher who spent nine years in prison for opposing Indonesia's occupation of the tiny southeast Asian territory.

On Aug. 30, East Timorese are electing an 88­member assembly that will draft a constitution to take the territory to full independence sometime next year.

The ballot is coming two years to the day after a UN­organized referendum in which East Timor's people voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia.

It will be a significant step toward nationhood for East Timor, which was ravaged after the referendum by anti­independence gangs backed by elements of Indonesia's military. Hundreds died, tens of thousands fled their homes and 80 percent of structures and services were destroyed.

While working to fix East Timor's physical problems, United Nations administrators have been preparing for democracy.

A four­month census registered almost 738,000 East Timorese, of whom about 380,000 are eligible to vote. The UN electoral commission has registered 16 political parties, which start campaigning July 15.

"Those who perpetrated this destruction did their job well. But they did not do it well enough. You will have your independence," UN administrator Sergio Vieira de Mello recently told political and community leaders.

In the capital, Dili, the progress of rebuilding is obvious. Many buildings have been repaired. New cars jam the streets. Children walk to school. Businesses are thriving.

Much remains to be done, however, especially in isolated mountain districts afflicted by malnutrition and a lack of water and electricity.

On Thursday, East Timor got a boost for its shattered economy by signing a deal to share an oil and natural gas field with Australia.

East Timor will receive 90 percent of the royalties from the Timor Gap field in the waters between Timor Island and Australia. Australia, which will get 10 percent, previously shared royalties 50­50 with Indonesia.

Over 20 years starting in 2004, East Timor is expected to receive more than $3.6 billion in royalties. Its only other export is coffee.

While the royalties will be a major windfall, officials concede the tiny nation may have to rely on foreign aid for years.

Many in the international community hope democracy will bring stability, but that is far from certain. After centuries of colonial rule by Portugal and 25 years of Indonesian occupation, democratic ideals remain alien to most East Timorese.

Their only previous experience in self­rule saw a few turbulent months of bloody political feuding in 1975 after Portugal withdrew and before Indonesia invaded.

In February, a US government­financed survey found only 5 percent of the population understood that August's election will be for a constitutional assembly. Two­thirds thought they would be voting for president.

UN staff say civic education projects have since improved the situation, yet suspicion and confusion remains.

"People are experiencing trauma as they see the re­emergence of political parties," said Aderito de Jesus Soares, a lawyer and democracy campaigner.

In recent months, political activists have been accused of burning houses and of intimidating political rivals.

Political leaders, including many of the same figures who led parties 26 years ago, say they are committed to peaceful campaigning and 14 parties signed a pact of national unity Sunday before a crowd of 5,000.

"Do not fight. Respect each other," said independence leader Xanana Gusmao, a former guerrilla leader and prisoner during Indonesian rule who is expected to be the nation's first president. "I want all the political parties to guarantee that no one will die in the campaigning."

Despite the assurances, the U.N. administration has ordered tight security ahead of the election, both by foreign peacekeepers and the new East Timor defence force formed from ex­guerrillas.

Political analysts expect Fretelin, the long­term resistance movement, to win a comfortable majority in the assembly election.

That has led others to press for a government of national unity to include representatives from all parties.

"We feel Fretelin and the other parties from 1975 have forgotten the people," said Pinto, who is a candidate for the tiny Democratic Party. "That is why people like me are becoming involved in this process ­ to develop and encourage democracy."

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