By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
The East Timorese "Popular Consultation" was a house of cards from the start. After all, what sense did it make to think that the Indonesian national police force — only recently separated from the Indonesian army that had waged a brutal war on East Timor — would provide the security necessary for a campaign that could ultimately require its government to give up the conquests of that war? And what reasonable person would bet on those police controlling the newly formed pro-government militias they were widely assumed to have nurtured?
But Indonesia and Portugal had agreed to hold the vote. And since the U.N. has never recognized the validity of Indonesia’s 1975 invasion and subsequent takeover of the former Portuguese colony, it jumped at the opportunity to allow East Timor to decide its future.
I mulled over such improbabilities during the few days that came between the invitation to serve as a district election officer (DEO) in East Timor, and the day I shipped out to the Royal Australian Air Force Transit Camp in Darwin, Australia. I also thought of how my mother used to tell me that a person had to learn to be able to say "no" to a dare.
As the 400 DEOs awaited assignment, our options seemed divided between being sent to contend with the murderous militia or the mosquitoes — presumed to be malaria-bearing. When I was dispatched to the island’s easternmost province of Lautem, it appeared that I had drawn the bugs.
With East Timor’s independence movement silenced for nearly a quarter of a century, there was no scientific way to gauge the level of support, although Lautem was an area in which pro-independence Falintil guerrillas still existed. With perhaps 1,000 men under arms, the Falintil posed no serious military threat to the Indonesian army, but as its commander, Xanana Gusmao, recently released from jail, once put it, "To resist is to win." And in Lautem province they still resisted.
East Timor’s voters were to be registered from scratch over a 22-day period, then asked to accept or reject the status of Special Autonomous Province within Indonesia. In consideration of the widespread illiteracy (68 percent in our subdistrict), a color-coded ballot was provided. If you wanted East Timor to remain part of Indonesia, you marked it near the red-and-white Indonesian flag; if you marked the blue, green and white of the new National Resistance Council of East Timor (CNRT) flag, you were voting for independence.
The campaign got off to an auspicious start in Lautem, with a joint pro-Indonesia/pro-independence kickoff event featuring both the bhopati, Jakarta’s provincial administrator, and the pro-independence liurai— the traditional "king." The king was a bit of a character: When the independence movement opened a local office, the liuraipresented the head of the U.N. delegation with a handwoven scarf, which the U.N. officer immediately donned, before someone pointed out to him that the scarf said, "Viva Falintil."
The entire campaign went peacefully in the region, particularly in the area where I worked, Luro, a place that called National Geographicmagazine to mind: Of the local villages, only the three in the flatlands were electrified. Most housing was in thatched huts, many of them on stilts.
After completing registration we were expected to conduct a voter-education campaign, which seemed like an excellent opportunity to visit some of the subvillages we had never seen. So we arranged with our translators to walk to two vertiginous hamlets that were inaccessible by car. We made the trek accompanied by the head of the village, who did it in flip-flops, until he blew one of them out and hiked the last half with one bare foot.
Finally our translators said something about being in the vicinity of Usufasu, but for some reason we kept on going, which I assumed meant we were at a crossroads and would return after visiting Sarelari, our other destination. But then we were told that we had arrived at Sarelari, and since there were no people or buildings in evidence there either, it seemed like an appropriate time to start asking questions.
It turned out that the Indonesian government had moved the entire population down to the main village of Barricafa, where we had started our climb; our translators had thought we wanted to see the locations, not the people.
From this experience I learned two things: Henceforth, before undertaking a hike to a mountain hamlet, I would ask if anyone actually lived there; more important, I had stumbled onto the results of a "strategic hamlet" program the Indonesian army had implemented to keep the population away from Falintil during the war. No doubt they had adapted the program from their American military mentors’ experience in Vietnam. The three unusually close flatland villages turned out to be a product of the same policy; their residents resettled on the main road for security purposes — the Indonesian government’s security, of course, not theirs.
My first encounter with the police proved a bit unnerving after I felt something poking me in the ribs from behind as I was checking out the house where I would ultimately live, and found it to be the barrel of one of the semiautomatic rifles they all carried. The police officer wasn’t pointing it at me; it was just dangling from his shoulder; he later asked if he could have my U.N. cap. Usually the police wanted to have their pictures taken with us.
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