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Ken Shirley Reports from East Timor

ACT Deputy Leader Hon Ken Shirley reports from East Timor his impressions of yesterday's historic independence vote.

Ken Shirley is one of five New Zealand MP's in East Timor as UN Observers for the vote.

Yesterday the people of Timor went to the polls. After 25 years of bloody conflict the choice was stark - autonomy within or independence from Indonesia . As a UN observer I was located, with my fellow MPs, in the remote mountainous region of Ainaro located some 130 kilometres, but five hours in four wheel drive from the Capital, Dili.

The landscape is dramatic and rugged rising to 3000 metres. The torturous road climbs vertically out of Dili through coffee plantations. The landscape becomes drier. Chickens, pigs, goats, dogs and laughing children are everywhere. Low yielding rice paddies form narrow strips along the valley floor and villages stretch to the distant skyline where meagre livings are scrapped from the bony mountainsides.

We arrived in Ainaro late on election eve. Tensions were high. Bands of well-armed local militia and thugs, overtly and covertly supplied and supported by the Indonesian army (TNI), appeared to control most aspects of village life. Any complaints to the authorities result in the intensive interrogation of the victims where the perpetrators of crime and violence continue unchallenged. Retribution is brutal and often fatal.

An independent army Frantil (Freitilin) exists in mountain retreats. The hostilities with the Indonesian army are suspended with UN agreement throughout the ballot process. The militia gangsters know that a vote for independence will remove their power, their privilege and their influence. They have much to loose.

Threats and intimidation are common place including threats on our own safety. Darkness falls rapidly and we sleep uneasily on election eve with carefully compiled contingency plans for a rapid exit.

We rise at 4 am on Election Day to visit the first polling booth before voting commences at 6.30 am. Nothing could have prepared us for what we encountered. All roads and the numerous mountain tracks were alive with people streaming towards the polling stations. On some roads small horses with children in front and behind, women carry food bundles on their heads with infants in their arms. All were wearing their best clothes. Extended families were colourfully attired, the older men (few in number) wearing their Portuguese hats, a vestige of a bygone era. Some had walked all night. The queues started forming at 2 am, by 6 am thousands had gathered patiently waiting and all proudly displaying their registration forms. The people were determined to vote. No treats, no intimidation, no bullying was going to deny them their democratic right.

The turnout was massive with over 90% of registered voters expressing their will. The counting begins tomorrow. I hope the answer is clear. But, I fear that the future for East Timor is far from clear.


ENDS

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