Voters shape East Timor's fate

Strife subsides as they choose between ties to Indonesia, sovereignty

August 31, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

DILI, Indonesia -- Proud, optimistic, determined to have the last word, almost all the registered voters here in East Timor cast their ballots yesterday in a referendum on the territory's future.

For the first time since the United Nations-sponsored process began nearly four months ago, it was a day largely free of violence and intimidation by military-backed militias determined to block what seems to be a growing momentum for independence from Indonesia.

The vote was on whether to accept an offer by President B. J. Habibie of a new, autonomous status within Indonesia. In January, Habibie announced that if the offer was rejected, Indonesia simply would let East Timor go free.

The day's only serious violence was the stabbing death of an East Timorese who had been working for the United Nations in the small western town of Ermera, a U.N. spokesman said.

The overall atmosphere of calm drew a cheer from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who sent his "warmest congratulations" to the people of this former Portuguese colony that was invaded by Indonesia in 1975 and has fought a separatist insurgency since.

A U.N. official said it would take about a week for the votes to be counted, for the process to be evaluated by an independent panel and for Annan to make a determination on whether to endorse the outcome.

"I'm very happy today," said Fatima Desa, 17, trying out her high school English as she waited to vote in her Bugs Bunny T-shirt. "I am happy because I am East Timorese and this is my country."

A senior Western diplomat said yesterday's heavy turnout -- estimated by the United Nations at more than 90 percent of the 450,000 registered voters -- indicated a likely victory for full independence.

`Massive numbers'

Carlos Valenzuela, deputy chief of the U.N. electoral office here, said, "The figures we have here comply with what they might be on a best-case scenario, with people coming in in massive numbers in a regular flow."

The most extraordinary development of the day was the sudden absence from the scene of the anti-independence militias that have terrorized East Timor for months. These ragtag thugs have been organized, armed and protected by the Indonesian military as a last stand in its 24-year battle to subdue this territory.

Only seven of the country's 850 polling places were forced to suspend operations for brief periods because of small disturbances or rumors of possible trouble, the United Nations said.

Annan's special representative to East Timor, Jamsheed Marker, was full of praise for the "superb" performance of the police, who had appeared unable and unwilling to confront militias until now.

Ian Martin, director of the U.N. mission here, attributed the sudden professionalism of the security forces to foreign pressure.

"The military has been pretty unscrupulous about pushing for the pro-autonomy forces to win. But it's looking like they may be prepared to accept a loss and go on to other problems, of which they have plenty," said a senior Jakarta-based diplomat.

One reason the military has resisted Habibie's notion of letting East Timor go is a fear that this could encourage a number of other separatist movements that have gained momentum in this period of weak government and military disarray in Indonesia.

The nation is in the midst of a long and politically debilitating electoral process that is due to produce a new president by the end of the year.

The national assembly, the MPR, must approve the results of yesterday's vote, but Marker said that given political realities, "it will be very difficult if not impossible for the MPR to reverse whatever the result."

For many voters, though, the question was a more simple one of pride in their national identity.

"At last we have a chance to decide for ourselves," said Joao Batiste, 30, an independence supporter who voted in a neighborhood of Dili that has been terrorized for months by the militias.

His friend, Zeka da Costa, 20, said, "After fighting for 24 years, our time has come."

Emotional day

For many of the people here, dressed in their threadbare Sunday best, it was a day of intense emotion.

Florentina dos Santos arrived at the polling place wearing black mourning clothes and carrying a framed photograph of her husband of two days, Virgilio, who was shot dead Thursday.

Wiping away tears, she held out the photograph of her husband, smiling under his baseball cap, and begged, in vain, to be allowed to cast his vote for him.

A little later, a tiny white ambulance arrived. Two nuns emerged, along with a stretcher carrying Ussulau de Jesus Cepeda, 23, who was wounded in the same attack.

As they carried him to vote, with his intravenous drip dangling above him, Cepeda looked around and said: "I want freedom. It's now or never."

Annan affirmed the commitment of the United Nations to provide an interim administration to East Timor whether it chooses independence or autonomy, a status in which Indonesia would cede control of everything except defense, foreign relations and some judicial and financial affairs.

During its quarter-century of control here, Indonesia has taken over the tasks of government administration and technical expertise that are needed for a functioning state. Those outside experts will be withdrawn whether East Timor becomes independent or autonomous.

Pub Date: 8/31/99

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