world council of churches
International Affairs, Peace & Human Security

WCC Staff Visit to East Timor
Indonesia Elections and Referendum in East Timor
11-20 June 1999


This was my second trip to Indonesia this year. Since the U.N announced the agreement to hold a Referendum in East Timor in August 1999, the World Council of Churches (WCC) has received a number of inquiries from member churches in Netherlands, Germany, Australia and the USA as well as from NGOs East Timor networks in Asia, and Europe about the possibility of WCC sending election monitors to the territory. On May 18, we also received a letter from PGI requesting that they would welcome international monitors for the August Referendum. To determine the feasibility of sending monitors we had to take into consideration the following factors:

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Election monitoring requires considerable advance preparations in terms of voter eduction, understanding of local customs and practices, knowledge of the language (Tetum, Portuguese, Bhasa, etc).

Exact role of the monitors - what is expected of them; will monitors have access to polling booths, election commission officials; familiarity and knowledge of the election laws and code of conduct.

Is there a reasonable local base to take care of the logistics in order to facilitate the task of the monitors, has the local group worked out a strategy for the monitors; where will the monitors be placed - urban or rural areas.

< What is the terrain like; what are the facilities for transportation; accommodation and food; and what are the communication facilities available.

Election in such situations are often not free from violence; is there sufficient guarantee to ensure the safety of the monitors; given the present environment of tension and conflict in East Timor what provisions can be made with regard to physical security.

My visit to Indonesia and East Timor was meant to make a personal assessment in relation to the above, so that we could then respond accordingly to the requests that were made to organise a team of international observers for the forthcoming Referendum in East Timor. I arrived in Jakarta on 11 June 1999 and had meetings with the General Secretary and the staff of PGI to work out the details of my trip to East Timor.

The Indonesian Elections

However, before I report on this I would like to share my reflections on the first General Elections held in Indonesia after 32 years of Suharto's authoritarian rule. The elections in the first week of June, passed without any major incidents of violence that were predicted by most Indonesia watchers. Given the political, religious and ethnic violence that afflicted Indonesia since the May 1998 riots in Jakarta, this was indeed a miracle. My flight which stopped at Singapore on the way to Jakarta was boarded by over 100 Chinese women and children. I asked a women seated next to me, who incidently was a member of the Garo Church, whether they were returning from a holiday. She replied that the elders of the community had taken a decision that the families should move to Singapore during the heat of the elections because of fears of eruption of violence. They were now returning as it was considered safe, though the final election results were yet to be announced. She lamented the disruption in the lives of the Chinese families as a result of the uncertain situation in the country.

As forecast the interim results showed that the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) led by Megawati Sukarnoputri is in the lead with around 38 percent of the votes followed by the National Awakening Party (PKB) of Abul Rehman Wahid with 18 percent of the votes; Golkar the party of Suharto and President Habibie comes next with 16 percent of the votes; followed by United Development Party (PPP) led by Hamzah Haz with 9 percent of the votes; and last in the line of the main contenders is Amien Rais, National Mandate Party (PAN) with 6 percent of the votes. People in general have accepted the election results as being free and fair and so have international observer organisations like the Carter Centre and Namfrel. In some constituencies however, the General Elections Commission (KPU) has ordered the recounting of votes based on complaints received from the public and election officials; in some constituencies like North Sulawesi there have been demands for re-polling. Most demands for re-polling and recounting are based on violations of electoral rules - these include vote buying, government officials favouring Golkar, misuse of state facility and intimidation.

A major concern among the people has been the slow vote count. This has made people suspicious as the results are taking quite a while to come through. The general Election Commission said that it will complete the vote count by the 21st of June and the official results will be announced on the 8th of July. It is interesting that Amien Rais who was in the running for President, in view of the dismal showing of his party, was the first to concede defeat. He also withdrew from the Presidential race. This gesture of gracefully accepting the election results prevented other parties from complaining that the election process was not fair.

The Eighteen Islamic Parties that campaigned from a religious platform in order to attract the Muslim majority votes suffered a crushing defeat and were completely routed. The two main Islamic parties amongst the first five, PAN and PKB, are progressive and open to members of all religions and do not believe in discrimination on grounds of religious beliefs. This has encouraged the Christians in Indonesia who were apprehensive of the position taken by Habibie and his Muslim intellectual groups as well as other splinter Islamic groups that would like to make Indonesia into an Islamic state. Megawati's PDI has a number of non-Muslims in key position within its ranks. Some of them were nominated to contest the election on the party ticket.

Now that the elections are over all eyes are on who is going to be the future President of Indonesia. The three main contenders are Megawati, President Habibie and Abdul Rehman Wahid. Since none of the parties have an absolute majority, talks are under way to work out coalition deals. Given the fact that the military has 38 seats, much will depend on who they are willing to support. For the time being the armed forces (TNI) are keeping neutral. Some political watchers speculate that General Wiranto may emerge as a possible Presidential candidate should there be a stalemate between Golkar and PDI led coalitions. There is bound to be uncertainty in the period ahead till the November Presidential elections. To add to the confusion a number of Muslim clerics have issued a fatwa (edict) that a woman cannot be head of an Islamic country. Megawati's PDI which fielded a large number of Christians in the elections has earned the wrath of the Ulemas. Though Pancasila still dominates political thought in Indonesia, given the current environment of freedom of speech Islamic clerics are for the first time openly giving expression to their ideology. To counter this development the leaders of armed forces, political parties, intellectuals, students and even some Islamic scholars have taken a position that Islam does not differentiate or discriminate between men and women - both are equal in the eyes of God and in the 1945 Constitution.

It is interesting to note that PDI did not do well in East Timor. It is perhaps because Megawati in one of her statements criticised President Habibie's decision to agree to a Referendum on East Timor. It was Golkar that got the majority of votes in the territory. Also interesting is the fact that Bishop Bello did not cast his vote, in keeping with his position of neutrality.

East Timor

The territory of East Timor is spread over 7400 square miles and had a total population of eight hundred thousand at the time of its occupation. For more than 400 years, East Timor was a Portuguese colony. In 1974 Portugal started the decolonisation process. At that time there were three main political parties on the scene - Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) which initially favoured a federation with Portugal. However, subsequently it formed a coalition with Fretilin (Nationalist Liberation Movement) and both demanded independence. The third small party was Apodeti, very much favoured by the Indonesians. On 11th August 1975 the UDT staged a coup resulting in a civil war in which over fifteen hundred people lost their lives. Indonesia, with the backing and support of USA and Australia, worried about a UDT Marxist led government in East Timor, sent troops to the territory. In the invasion around two hundred thousand people were killed. In May 1976, after a so called act of self-determination, East Timor was declared the 27th province of Indonesia.

The United Nations and the international community refused to recognise East Timor as a part of Indonesia and has since considered the annexation as illegal. Successive UN Resolutions condemned the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, but the international community was able to do little because of Suharto's strong opposition to any discussion on the subject. The November 1991, massacre in Dili was the turning point. It provided the international community an opportunity to once again draw attention to the situation of East Timor. Since then the issue has been raised at many international forums. With the fall of Suharto's regime and the weakening of the military apparatus the country has undergone a radical change - constitutional amendments of far-reaching effect are in the offing; there is freedom of the press, restoration of the democratic process with consequent revival of political parties and the willingness on part of the Indonesian establishment to seek a solution to the long simmering question of the right of self determination of the people of East Timor.

President B.J. Habibie took everyone by surprise when on January 1999 he agreed to hold a referendum in relation to the status of East Timor. The Referendum provides the people of East Timor a choice of autonomy within Indonesia; and in case the people reject the offer of autonomy, Indonesia will let go the Territory. The announcement was welcomed by the international community and led to the signing of agreement between the UN, Indonesia and Portugal. In pursuance of the agreement the Security Council adopted resolution 1236 on 7th May 1999 to implement its provisions.

In accordance with the provisions of this Resolution the UN established UNAMET (United Nations Assessment Mission in East Timor) to organise and conduct popular consultation in order to ascertain whether the East Timorese people accept or reject the constitutional framework that provides for special autonomy for East Timor within the unitary Republic of Indonesia. UNAMET has set up three major components to implement its task - political, electoral, information and communication. It will have two hundred and forty-one international staff, four hundred and twenty United Nations volunteers, two hundred and eighty civilian police and four thousand local staff. Its headquarters are located at Dili but offices will also be established in the regions.

The Referendum, referred to as a popular consultation, will be carried out amongst four hundred thousand people, spread in thirteen districts that are sub-divided into sixty-two sub-districts and four hundred and fifty-two municipalities. According to the plans of the Electoral Commission there will be seven hundred polling stations manned by four hundred district electoral officers. The electoral process provides for twenty days period for registration. The electoral lists will be completed in seven days and a five day period will be allowed for filing objections. This will be followed by fourteen days of campaigning at the end of which there will be two days of cooling period, whereafter the elections will take place.

The following categories of people will be entitled to vote:

  • Persons born in East Timor of the age of seventeen or above
  • Persons whose spouse is from East Timor
  • Persons who have at least one parent born in East Timor
The document's required for registration are identity cards, supported by birth or baptism certificates and marriage and family certificates.

In discussions with the UN staff, particularly with the Special Representative of the Secretary General in East Timor, I was told that UNAMET encourages election monitors to be present at the time of the Referendum. Given the limited number of UNAMET staff, they hope that the presence of international monitors would help to insure free and fair electoral process. UNAMET will accredit international monitors but is not in a position to guarantee their security, provide transportation, accommodation, interpretation or other assistance.

The security situation in East Timor remains a matter of major concern for everyone - UNAMET, the churches, local and international NGOs and people in general. According to Ian Martin, the Secretary General's Special Representative in East Timor, the security situation has to change considerably if the popular consultation is to be held according to schedule. The situation is particularly bad in the west of East Timor where pro-integration militias have been operating freely putting road blocks, burning crops, looting houses and killing people they suspect of being pro-independence. As a result many people have been forced to flee to other parts of the territory in search of safety. A Caritas representative I met puts the figure of internally displaced people at over fifty-two thousand; nearly six thousand people have fled from Oecusse to Dili; in addition many others have gone to live with friends and relatives. The worst effected areas are Liquica, Emera and the surrounding areas. The slogan of the militia is "death or life with Indonesia". According to some relief agencies internal displacement started in November 1998 as a result of military operations to seek out FALINTIL. In December and January it is reported that the Indonesian Armed Forces closed some areas to carry out their operations. Even organisations like CARE and Red Cross were not allowed to enter. People were forced to seek shelter in different parts. Six thousand sought refuge in the church in Suai; fourteen thousand sought refugee in Liquica. Militia violence has forced some people into the jungle, and in the villages people do not stay in one place but keep moving.

Armed militias have often interfered with relief operations stopping the agencies from providing food and relief supplies to the people. In April a Caritas van full of rice for the internally displaced in the west of East Timor was seized and the workers beaten. The van was recovered after two weeks from the police station, minus the rice shipment and Caritas was forced to pay one million Rupiah for its release. This is not the only incident, four other vehicles belonging to Caritas were seized in a similar fashion. In Liquica and Suai, I was told that Churches too have been targets of attack of the militias. Caritas officials informed me that people who have given shelter to the internally displaced are themselves poor and therefore in need of assistance.

Late last year the pro-independence groups formed shadow administrations that operated right down to the village level. The violence spread by the pro-integration militia backed by the army have forced them to curtail their activities and go into hiding. Caritas officials worried about the present polarisation between the two sides have started to store food supplies and relief items in the parishes in order to build reserves in case of further hostilities and turmoil.

Everyone agrees that the pro-integration militias are armed and supported by the Indonesian armed forces and act according to their dictates. In this kind of a situation, and given difficulties of the mountainous terrain it is unlikely that the security situation will change in the near future to allow for free and fair polls without fear of intimidation and threats. The problem is further compounded by the fact that under the agreement reached it is the responsibility of the Indonesian government to guarantee the security of the people. The Indonesian government has given this responsibility to the armed forces, notwithstanding the fact that they have been the major actors in the repression of the East Timorese people. The small UN contingent with their limited mandate can do little to make a change in the current security climate. UMAMET is aware of this but hopes that the Indonesian government's fear of the international community's response to large scale violence or interference in the electoral process will cause it to insure that the process runs smoothly.

Every week UNAMET has meetings with local and international NGOs and church representatives, including Caritas, GKTT and others to make an assessment of the security situation.

Role of the Church in East Timor

My trip to Indonesia including East Timor was worked out in consultation with PGI and our member church GKTT in East Timor. I was informed that it may be difficult for me to go to East Timor as all the flights are overbooked (there are only three flights a week to Dili) and there was no accommodation available as all the hotels were booked by UNAMET. I requested Joseph Pattiasina to keep trying, through their travel agent, as I was keen to make the trip to Dili. I met Rev. Arlindo Marcel the Moderator of GKTT in Jakarta. He was on his way to attend the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). In our discussions it became clear that Arlindo was unhappy with PGI for the following reasons:

  • Since the trouble started in East Timor PGI had not issued a statement nor had it taken a position on the agreement reached between the UN, Indonesian government and Portugal

  • None of the PGI Executive Committee members had visited East Timor since the violence erupted in the territory last November, whereas PGI officials had made visits to Ambon and other parts of Indonesia which were subjected to violence; PGI had organised a meeting on Irian Jaya in Bali, but no such meeting was planned or organised for East Timor. This was seen as lack of interest and concern on part of PGI leadership on the East Timor issue.

  • The March 1999 issue of the PGI monthly bulletin carried an article, which according to Fransisco M. de Vasconcelos the General Secretary of GKTT, created misunderstanding between the Roman Catholic Church in Dili and GKTT

  • If GKTT leadership speaks about human rights violations in East Timor they are unfairly seen by PGI as being pro-independence. GKTT has both East Timorese and Indonesian settlers as members of mixed congregations.
In my conversations with GKTT leadership I realised that they tended to favour the pro-independence line. The Indonesian segment of its membership, therefore were often unhappy. Some settler families had sent their women and children away leaving only the men behind in East Timor. In fact, the Indonesian government had notified government officials that they could leave the territory on a leave of absence but they would have to be present in the territory to collect their salaries. This exodus from GKTT had effected the church financially since most of its resources depended on civil servants and Indonesian businessmen who were affluent and therefore able to make substantial contributions to the church.

In the absence of support from the PGI the GKTT leadership was looking to partners abroad for assistance. As noted earlier a number of NGOs and church based solidarity groups have offered to send monitors for the August Referendum and these have been readily accepted by GKTT. Yet GKTT has not worked out any strategy or plans as to how they will deploy international monitors, nor had worked out logistics relating to accommodation, transport and communication. Presently it is difficult to find suitable accommodation in East Timor. Most of the houses and hotels have been taken up by the UN and other international organisations raising the rents in the territory. GKTTs rationale in asking for monitors is that it will prevent pro-integration groups from indulging in violence, but it is unable to provide any guarantees for the safety of the monitors.

On my return to Jakarta I conveyed to the General Secretary and Chairperson of the PGI the impressions I gathered from my visit to Dili. They told me that during the last year PGI was asked to respond to a number of emergency situations in places like Surabaya, Ambon and Moluccos where places of worship were burnt as a result of communal violence. They were frank in admitting that perhaps enough attention was not given to East Timor. The leadership plans to undertake visits to the territory before the August Referendum.


East Timor is a small territory with a difficult terrain. Transportation, accommodation, communication and physical security are a major concern for those contemplating on sending monitors to the territory for the August Referendum. The UNAMET is not prepared to coordinate or take responsibility for international monitors. GKTT does not have an infrastructure nor a strategy or plan of action for deployment of international monitors.

The task of conducting the popular consultation is in the hands of UNAMET, which will ensure that the polls are conducted in a fair and proper manner. There is little that international observers can do in relation to the election process. Nevertheless, number of NGOs, East Timor solidarity groups and partner churches are sending observers for the August Referendum. PGI Youth desk has also drawn up a plan to monitor the referendum. While one appreciates the international interest and attention, one has to be careful that large scale presence of outsiders could also become counter-productive. Perhaps it was because of this that Bishop Bello has discouraged international observers.

International presence is needed to be a check on incidences of violence, threats and intimidation that are likely to increase as the time for referendum draws nearer. It is evident that during this difficult period GKTT needs all the support and help it can get. It needs accompaniment of the ecumenical family through this period of popular consultation. The ecumenical family can help by sending delegates from the churches who have experience in conflict prevention, are familiar with the history of the conflict in the territory, have knowledge of the local language and the people and are prepared to stay in the territory from the time the registration process begins till after the referendum.

Presently, both the pro-integration and the pro-independence groups do not see themselves as being the losers, though it is clear that one side will have to loose. Hence the post referendum period is going to be full of difficulties no matter which side is successful in the referendum.

Clement John
International Affairs, Peace & Human Security
26 June 1999

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