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UN Police Election Violence Prediction Protested

E.Timor NGOs Protest UN Police Predictions Of Election Violence

Background:

On February 8, and Australian news article interviewed the civpol Commander of Operations in East Timor who predicted violence as the election process progresses, basing it on myths of East Timor having little experience with democracy and a culture of violence.

After a phone conversation in which the Commander confirmed that the interview does reflect his opinions, a coalition of East Timorese NGOs wrote him a letter on 17 February. As there has been no response to the letter for three weeks, the NGOs have decided to release the letter to the public and the media.

The text of the letter, in English and Bahasa Indonesia, follows.

-- Charles Scheiner, IFET and John M. Miller, ETAN (at the request of La'o Hamutuk and the other NGOs signing the letter)

--------------------------------------------- Commander Gary Gent Chief of Civpol Operations UNTAET Dili, East Timor

Dili, 17 February 2001

Dear Commander Gent:

As you are aware, on 8 February 2001, a news article entitled "Police expect election violence in Dili" was released by the Australian Associated Press. The writer, Rod McGuirk, quoted you as saying that the upcoming East Timorese election would lead to an increase in civil disturbances because the East Timorese people "don't understand what democracy is all about" and "don't handle conflict properly." In a phone call yesterday, you asserted these statements as reflecting your views.

We believe that these statements are based on a lack of communication and understanding with East Timorese civil society, and we would like to help bridge this gap. We appreciate the very difficult job you have here in East Timor and acknowledge that there have recently been serious incidents of violence and community concern over increasing violence. Your statements, however, add to a climate of fear and may potentially lead to further violence. With this letter, we hope to initiate further discussion.

We find your remarks problematic for a number of reasons:

* The East Timorese people understand democracy better than citizens of most Western democracies. During the 1999 Popular Consultation, 98.5% of our voters came out, peacefully defying threats and violence from pro-Indonesian military and militia forces. An overwhelming majority voted their opinions, in spite of threatened retaliation. Compare this with the recent election in the United States where only 50 percent of the eligible population voted and where there are serious questions about the legitimacy of the outcome of the presidential race.

* External forces caused the violence that plagued East Timor during 1999 (and for 23 years before that). The Indonesian government, its military, and militia proxies, instigated and perpetrated virtually all the violence before, during and after the 30 August vote. Most of the world's most powerful countries -- all of which consider themselves liberal democracies -- provided significant economic, military, and diplomatic support to Jakarta from 1975 to 1999, thus greatly facilitating Indonesia's crimes against the people of East Timor. The East Timorese people exercised incredible restraint in not responding to the massive campaign of murder, dislocation, arson, and terror inflicted. While we are grateful to UNAMET for facilitating that process, we believe that the East Timorese people's commitment to peaceful democracy and disavowal of violence were the primary factors that enabled the Popular Consultation to succeed.

* Your comments replicate the false arguments put forth by the Indonesian military that blamed East Timorese for the violence fomented by an invading force. For more than two decades, Indonesia propagandized both the international community and the East Timorese population by asserting that East Timorese people were incapable of peaceful political debate that their invasion in December 1975 was required to put an end to a civil war among us. This was never true. As is well-documented, the actions of Indonesian military intelligence were the major factor that led to the outbreak of the brief civil war, which ended more than two months before Indonesia launched its full-scale invasion of our country.

* Your comments reinforce racist stereotypes of the East Timorese people. Such stereotyping and racism by police authorities is a widespread problem all over the world, especially in multi-racial Western democracies. The problem often stems from police having little understanding of the communities they work in an even more likely situation in East Timor than in places where the police share nationality and language with civil society. Close communication between the police and the broader community is critical.

* Finally, public pronouncements of imminent violence such as you made have a tendency, in any country, to induce a climate of fear and become self-fulfilling prophesies. They encourage a mindset within both the police and the civilian population that disagreements are likely to escalate into violence, and therefore encourage disputants to escalate rather than seek peaceful ways to resolve conflicts. This is especially dangerous when, as in this case, those responsible for upholding public order have little historical or cultural background, communication, or familiarity with those they are policing. East Timor's elections are many months off; predicting election violence now is ungrounded, defeatist and dangerous. As a leader of international police in East Timor, you act as a model. In this regard, you have set a very bad example for your fellow officers, and helped to lay the basis for views among other members of the international police force that help to heighten political tensions. We understand that you have a diverse force, with a multitude of trainings, experiences, languages, and cultural backgrounds, which makes it all the more important for Civpol leadership to put forth accurate information which reflects East Timorese society and encourages good relations with it.

To promote widely an idea that the East Timorese are incapable of working out disputes peacefully, is wrong and dangerous. It is the responsibility of your office to be working with communities to identify constructive and locally appropriate strategies for peace, and to counter fears with facts.

We call on you to publicly repudiate your comments immediately. It is unacceptable to us that our police would carry such views. Assuming that you are willing to repudiate and apologize for your offensive remarks, we welcome the opportunity to work with you to ensure that both the transitional period and our future self-government are characterized by good, peaceful, open relationships between all elements of society.

You may contact us through Benjamin at the La'o Hamutuk office (670-325-013 or 61-408-811-373). We thank you for your attention.

Sincerely,

Benjamin Sanches Afonso, La'o Hamutuk Joaquim Fonseca, Yayasan HAK Rui Castro, Center for Popular Economic Development Nuno Rodrigues, Sa'he Institute for Liberation Arsenio Bano, NGO Forum Eladio Antoniu Faculto, Organizacao Juventude de Timor Loro Sa'e Maria Dias, Klinika PAS Manuela Leong Pereira, Fokupers

cc: Jose Luis da Costa de Sousa, Civpol Sergio Vieira de Mello, UNTAET Xanana Gusmao, President CNRT


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