The Transition to a Democratic and Independent East Timor

Statement by Charles E. Costello,
Director, Democracy Program,
The Carter Center
To the Joint Hearing of the House and Senate
"East Timor: A New Beginning?"
February 10, 2000 Oral Summary

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to testify today about East Timor's future. I have submitted a longer written statement which I will summarize briefly. I also have a short document describing The Carter Center's actual observation of the public consultation process and our findings, and I ask your permission to include it in the record.

I led The Carter Center's observation mission to East Timor in August 1999, a mission which had generous support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department, especially Assistant Secretary Roth. I witnessed the incredible determination of the East Timorese people to express their will peacefully at the ballot box in the face of serious intimidation and violence from the Indonesian government and military, mainly through their surrogates the militias. The people literally came streaming out of the mountains on foot at dawn on August 30, and most voting was over by noontime. More than 98% of registered voters turned out with 78.5% favoring independence. The rest of the story is well known. It is ultimately a happy story, thanks especially to Australia and the United Nations, and East Timor should by no means be thought of as a "disaster" in spite of the suffering the Timorese people have had to endure to achieve nationhood. But independence will be a hollow victory indeed if the transition over the next 2-3 years does not lead to a democratic political system in East Timor. Fortunately, prominent East Timorese leaders such as Alexander "Xanana" Gusmao, Jose Ramos-Horta, and Bishop Belo all proclaim their commitment to democratic values.

If there is one thing we have learned in the last 20 years about political transitions, as part of the so-called democratic wave in the ex-communist world and elsewhere, it is that these countries need help in building their new governance structures and civic institutions, just as much as they need help with their economies and physical infrastructure. Truly democratic societies, "free countries" we might call them, are only built up over time; and sustainable democratic political systems depend on a foundation of democratic values embedded in a nation's culture. Neither public administration training for new civil servants nor a single free election alone will deliver democracy to East Timor. Programs of democratic development assistance are needed as badly as any for economic recovery or infrastructure rehabilitation. Democracy, like most anything else, is learned by doing it; and unfortunately the East Timorese under Portuguese or Indonesian occupation have had precious little practice.

It is our view that support to civil society (nongovernmental organizations) for the strengthening of civic institutions that will work alongside the UN Transitional Authority for East Timor and later the elected East Timorese government deserves the highest priority. Be it assistance to fledgling political parties, the independent media, or to NGOs that participate actively in the public policy arena, this is the area where U.S. bilateral assistance can play a vital role. This is where the U.S. has a comparative advantage based on the experience gained by American organizations working with strong bipartisan support for democratic development over the last 20 years. A vibrant civil society is the basic underpinning and guarantor of a democratic society and strong political institutions, as de Toqueville brilliantly observed about our country more than 200 years ago. Civic education in the broadest sense, through participation in public life by private groups acting freely and peacefully, will be essential to building a successful democratic future for East Timor. Good governance doesn't just happen; you have to work at it. And it is as dependent upon civil society actors and organizations as it is upon elected public leaders. Freedom rests with self-government, and self-government rests first and foremost with the people. I urge you to give East Timor that kind of support. They have earned it.

Thank you.
Written Statement

The Carter Center was involved in the Asia region, in Indonesia for the June 1999 parliamentary elections (when President Carter met then imprisoned Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao), and in East Timor before and after the referendum that led to East Timor's separation from Indonesia. The Carter Center's work in East Timor, including sustained public reporting that had a strong impact on world opinion, has earned wide recognition and reinforced the Center's credibility and reputation for impartiality among key actors in the territory.

As part of its ongoing efforts in East Timor, the Center conducted a USAID-funded post-referendum assessment in December 1999. The main goals of this comprehensive assessment were to determine priorities for promoting democratic development in East Timor and to identify specific areas in which The Carter Center and other international groups might be of assistance to the East Timorese during their transition toward full independence.

The assessment team met and consulted with a wide range of political actors in the territory, as well as members of civil society, the United Nations, and other international organizations. In the capital of Dili, the team received briefings and conducted interviews with UN Transitional Authority for East Timor (UNTAET) officials, National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT) officials, including President Xanana Gusmao and Vice President Jose Ramos-Horta, INTERFET, representatives of other U.N. agencies (e.g. UNDP, UNICEF) and representatives of a variety of Timorese non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including women's groups and student groups. The team also gathered information from trips outside Dili and in Darwin, Australia.

East Timor was devastated by the post-consultation violence. The humanitarian effort organized by the United Nations and other international organizations has been impressive and comprehensive. Nonetheless, considerable relief and physical reconstruction work is still necessary, including in the areas of food security and agricultural development, reconstruction of houses and other buildings, development of reliable telecommunications systems, provision of adequate health care, and access to education, among others.

Experience in other war-torn countries has shown, however, that too often, in the initial stages of reconstruction, a trade-off is made, and physical reconstruction usually gets far more attention than governance and social reconstruction. East Timor offers a unique opportunity to focus attention on building a political culture based on respect for human rights and other democratic values at the same time that East Timorese rebuild their homes, roads, and schools.

Early concerns of UNTAET that an affiliation with CNRT would, in effect, only serve to solidify CNRT as the legitimate, one party ruler in East Timor have dissipated. East Timorese political leadership is committed to a pluralist, multi-party, democratic system based on the rule of law. CNRT leadership, including CNRT President Xanana Gusmao, has made it clear that government can be formed only on the basis of democratic elections.

Nonetheless, UNTAET is very aware of CNRT's strong organizational capacity, especially at the local level, created by the strong grassroots network that developed clandestinely during the resistance movement. Although at the national level CNRT has pledged on numerous occasions that it will dissolve when both Xanana Gusmao and UNTAET agree that political elections should be held, the existence of a widespread and well-functioning indigenous CNRT network has created an interesting dilemma for UNTAET administrators.

UNTAET has considered giving the pre-existing structures formal legal status and perhaps allowing them to act as conduits for funding, as challenging these structures outright could create a serious confrontation between CNRT and UNTAET. However, since these resistance networks are, in effect, un-elected bodies, there are concerns that the bodies are not truly representative and democratic. The existence of these networks underscores the need for creating a greater awareness of democratic principles and values among all East Timorese at every level of society and at the beginning of the transition period.

East Timor will face many challenges during the transition and in the years to come as it strives to establish and consolidate democracy. There are many areas that need the attention and support of the United States and other leaders in the international community. Priorities for assistance in the governance area include: promoting greater awareness of democratic values; strengthening the capacity of civil society organizations; empowering women and youth; drafting a new constitution; preparing for multi-party elections; establishing the rule of law; building a free and independent local media; promoting justice and reconciliation, including accountability for human rights violations perpetrated in East Timor; and resolving the refugee crises.

Promoting Greater Awareness of Democratic Values

A clear opportunity exists in East Timor to build a democratic culture. Nonetheless, after living centuries under Portuguese colonial rule and 24 years under a repressive Indonesian government, most of the East Timorese people have only a limited understanding of the concepts and practices of democracy and human rights, especially people in rural areas. Recognizing this, the CNRT leadership (including Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos-Horta) would like to build a nation based on rule of law, tolerance, and respect for human rights by promoting greater awareness of these principles among all East Timorese people. The CNRT, local NGO representatives, and UNTAET leadership all expressed to The Carter Center how essential it is for political elite centered in Dili to find ways to communicate with and receive feedback from the mostly rural population in the rest of East Timor. Each group specifically expressed the need for dialogue around human rights and democracy issues at the national policy-making level and at the grassroots level.

Mechanisms must be put in place to promote national political dialogue among all major groups in society on the principles of democratic governance. Civic education campaigns must be implemented that will feed back to UNTAET and the CNRT leadership and serve to increase public participation in policy-making. All parties agree that civil society groups, including NGOs, women's and student groups, and an independent media, should serve as the avenues for transmitting information to the public and providing feedback to UNTAET and CNRT.

Strengthening the Capacity of Civil Society

Local NGOs can play a critical role in informing public debate and increasing public influence on government policy choices, as well as providing issue specific expertise and coalition-building forums, in the constitutional drafting process, the development of legislation, and the holding of elections. Unlike in some other transitional countries (such as Liberia and Ethiopia), the political leadership in East Timor appreciates the important role that civil society must play to build a truly democratic state and strongly supports programs to enhance the capacity of local civil society groups to promote democratic development. East Timorese NGOs are eager to play such a role.

During the resistance movement, a number of NGOs worked to report and document human rights abuses and to support the call for independence. These groups now provide a core of nascent professional NGOs, that have already begun to operate in East Timor. However, as is the case in many post-conflict situations, many new NGOs have emerged to bid for the funds being funneled into East Timor by international NGOs and donor countries. Indeed, there are presently at least 25 local NGOs operating in East Timor, a significantly higher number than existed prior to the consultation. The members of many of these groups, while enthusiastic and possessing some limited technical training and expertise, lack the organizational skills and thematic training necessary to sustain an active and effective NGO, let alone maintain a broader NGO advocacy network. The local NGO community is further limited by a severe lack of material resources.

Training and capacity-building programs clearly are needed to assist in the maturation of these groups to ensure the sustainability of an influential and flourishing civil society. Specifically, organizational and management skills and the capacity of civil society groups to critique and influence public policy must be strengthened as soon as possible.

Empowerment of Women and Youth

CNRT leadership, UNTAET, and representatives from the local NGO community are particularly eager for traditionally marginalized groups, such as women and youth, to be brought meaningfully into a participatory process and for their specific issues to be considered in policy discussions. Historically, women and youth have been the sectors of society most affected by poverty and inadequate access to health care and education, and the groups with the least voice in decision-making processes.

Women in East Timor have been subjected to various forms of abuse and inequalities, including making up a majority of the unemployed. Domestic violence has been commonplace in many families, and women have suffered trauma related to both the long history of repression and the recent violence experienced during the post-consultation period. Significant numbers of women were raped by militia members during and after the consultation, both in East Timor and in the refugee camps. In addition, the post-consultation violence has left some 60,000 female-headed households without husbands or fathers, who are either dead or still in areas outside of East Timor.

Newly formed local women's groups have begun to provide assistance to female victims of domestic abuse and other forms of violence. These groups also want to ensure that gender issues are adequately considered in the decisions made by UNTAET and the CNRT. However, womens' groups recognize their need for additional training in these areas and have requested assistance.

Children and youth also have been greatly affected by East Timor's long history of repression and by the recent post-consultation violence. Prior to the vote, approximately 20 percent of East Timorese children did not attend school. Now most schools have not re-opened, as several U.N. offices are located in the school buildings and there are few school supplies. Children were forced to flee East Timor with their families after the consultation. Today, those that survived are returning to homes and towns that have been destroyed, and some remain separated from their families. Yet these young victims of psycho-social trauma are the future teachers, doctors, and leaders of East Timor.

Students were some of the most significant activists for East Timorese independence, and they remain active today. Many of them were specific targets of past and recent human rights abuses. They are very sensitive to the potential of being alienated from UN/CNRT discussions and planning regarding the transition process. Students have identified several areas of concern for which they would like to advocate: the need for students who were within the Indonesia educational system to complete their education; the need to reconstruct schools, and the vocational and higher education systems; and the need to quickly address the high unemployment problem. Students are further concerned about the issue of language, as many speak Bahasa Indonesia and Tetun, but do not speak Portuguese, which the CNRT leadership has said will be the official language. It is critical that an on-going dialogue be established with students in East Timor during the transition process. Similar to the women's groups, student groups have begun to identify the issues they wish to address. They, too, recognize that their capacity is limited and seek guidance and training to improve their organizational and advocacy capabilities.

Preparing for Multiparty Elections and Drafting a New Constitution

To focus on immediate reconstruction needs, the U.N. and the CNRT have purposefully agreed to delay planning for elections and drafting of the constitution until later in the transition process. The type of elections to hold (parliamentary, presidential, local) and whether to draft the constitution prior to or after the elections is still being decided. There is an understanding among nearly all of the East Timorese leadership that electoral political activity at this moment could be divisive and the priority should be placed on the social and physical reconstruction of East Timor.

Still there is much work that will need to be done to prepare for democratic elections. There are as many as seven political parties with recognizable organizational structures, some of which have existed in East Timor or in exile since 1975, including UDT, Apodeti, and Fretilin. Fretilin is by far the most influential of the parties, holding the broadest public support. There are reportedly Fretilin party members in almost every community down to the sub-village level. Yet none of these parties have not participated in a democratic election.

Several thousand East Timorese assisted the United Nations in the administration of the consultation process, including the August 30 vote, and received limited training on the technical aspects of holding an election. Furthermore, there were hundreds of students who served as domestic monitors. This recent experience has left many East Timorese familiar with the technical aspects of conducting a transparent election. Still, the technical capacity of the East Timorese to conduct an election is limited. Developing political parties, promoting women's political participation, managing a political campaign, and establishing an electoral commission are examples of areas in which additional technical and thematic training are needed.

Though it will take some time for the East Timorese to be technically prepared for an election, there also are many non-technical aspects to a democratic election. These include wide participation in the political process and the ability of voters to make an informed choice. Both East Timorese leadership and the United Nations said it is critical that efforts begin immediately to institutionalize the concepts of pluralism and multiparty democracy into East Timorese society. The establishment of a democratic political culture will be essential to the conduct of genuinely democratic elections. A better-informed public also will be more influential in the constitutional drafting process, ensuring that the constitution addresses the needs of all people.

A dialogue and civic education program aimed at increasing awareness of democratic principles and human rights values within East Timorese society should begin immediately to promote a democratic culture and enhance civil society participation in these important processes. Both CNRT and the United Nations support the idea that civil society should play a critical role in building this democratic culture.

Establishment of the Rule of Law

A functioning legal system does not exist in East Timor. Similar to other sectors, the infrastructure of the judicial sector has been destroyed and the pool of adequately trained East Timorese legal personnel is limited. The legal division of UNTAET has developed a thorough program for training and mentoring judges, lawyers, prosecutors, and court clerks. The program, which will be done in collaboration with UNDP, will establish a law commission to review existing laws and recommend new laws that will comply with international standards. A priority for UNTAET is to establish a rudimentary legal system to process persons detained (e.g. militia members, thieves) by INTERFET and U.N. civilian police before the expiration of the 90-day maximum detention period allowed under U.N. policy and to resolve the quickly emerging property disputes.

The U.N. program comprehensively covers the areas of training for legal personnel and legislative drafting. However, mechanisms must be put in place to inform the broader public of their rights, especially those people in rural areas. In addition, legal aid mechanisms will need to be developed very quickly to ensure access to legal defense for the accused.

Establishment of a Free and Independent Local Media

The CNRT and UNTAET placed a high priority on the need to develop an independent media. An independent media will be an important vehicle for ensuring well-informed public debate and providing checks and balances to the UNTAET administration and emerging East Timorese government. There is currently a small core of journalists in East Timor, who have established a media association and begun to draft national press laws and a media code of conduct. Training geared toward skills enhancement for East Timorese is needed in the areas of basic and investigative reporting and editing, objective analysis of proposed national policies and laws, and coverage of issues such as accountability, corruption, and freedom of speech, expression, assembly and association.

Prior to the consultation, there was only limited print media. Television was a primary means of communicating with the East Timorese. Most televisions were destroyed or looted after the consultation. During the transition period, UNTAET plans to introduce the radio as the primary means of communication. This will create additional training needs in the area of radio broadcasting.

Justice and Reconciliation Gusmao and other CNRT leaders have been vocal in their support for an East Timor that welcomes all people, and they have encouraged reconciliation and forgiveness. It is less clear, however, whether this view is shared by all East Timorese. In some areas, communities are undertaking their own reconciliation efforts by having returned pro-integration militia members (many whom claim to have been forcibly recruited) rebuild homes and community structures destroyed by the militias during the violence after the consultation. Yet there also have been increasing incidences of retribution against other returning refugees.

It is imperative that the perpetrators responsible for the abuse be held accountable for their actions. However, this must be done in conformity with the rule of law and international legal standards. The issue of justice and reconciliation will be closely linked to the outcome of Indonesian independent investigation into abuses perpetrated in East Timor. The international community must continue to urge Indonesia to conduct a transparent investigation and hold those within the Indonesia military found culpable responsible for their crimes. The re-integration of pro-integration East Timorese into East Timor will continue to be a sensitive and complex issue. It will require conflict mediation and reconciliation efforts sensitive and responsive to local needs, and to be effective must be driven by the East Timorese rather than handed down to them.

Resolution of the Refugee Situation

Although refugees continue to return to East Timor, the refugees remaining in West Timor continue to be a primary concern. More than 100,000 Timorese refugees want to return to the territory. Xanana Gusmao has said publicly on many occasions that he hopes all East Timorese will eventually return. The remaining refugees include pro-integration supporters and members of the Indonesian civil service. The return of these individuals is creating tension between the approximately 60,000 refugees who voted to remain part of Indonesia and the majority of Timorese who favored independence. Conflict can also be expected to erupt if the approximately 6,000 Timorese who served as functionaries of Indonesian administration and rule (members of the military, police and civil service) return to the territory. These emerging tensions necessitate the need to build capacity within East Timorese society in the area of conflict resolution and to establish mechanisms for alternative dispute resolution.

Relationship with Indonesia

East Timor's relationship with Indonesia will remain critical. Indonesia will most likely be one of East Timor's major trading partners. Many East Timorese students have university links to Indonesia, and many clearly continue to feel a strong solidarity with student activists in Indonesia who supported East Timorese independence. Many East Timor civil servants were Indonesian and their families remain in East Timor. Hundreds of thousands East Timorese refugees also remain in West Timor.

CNRT leadership is committed to maintaining a positive relationship with Indonesia. The transparent and fair conduct of Indonesia's independent investigation into the abuses perpetrated in East Timor will be a critical element in how the relationship between the two states develops.


The present transition period represents a unique opportunity to build a culture of peace, democracy, and human rights in East Timor. The next three years are critical to ensure that the territory consolidates democracy and avoids the type of backsliding that many newly independent and emerging democratic nations have suffered, such as Eritrea, Zambia, and Zimababwe. Major actors involved in East Timor, including UNTAET, the leadership of the CNRT, and national and local NGOs are committed to building an independent state based on democratic principles and respect for human rights.

East Timor will most likely become the first new nation of the 21st Century. While it will be a small nation in terms of population and economic clout, its location and special history make East Timor an important actor among regional powers, such as Australia and Indonesia, as well as the United States and the United Nations. A high level of world attention and donor dollars will be focused on East Timor over the next three years, and with it the potential for external domination, internal corruption, and eventual neglect that has plagued other nations under similar conditions.

East Timor is also important for the example it could establish for how to effectively promote democracy and human rights in newly independent and emerging democracies. Advocates of democracy and human rights are frustrated by the increasing number of "backsliding" democratic nations and failed states. Yet, there exists a real potential to get it right this time, as East Timor has the unique opportunity to build its government and civil institutions from the ground up.

The international community must assist the East Timorese in establishing a democratic society based on the values of participatory democracy and universal human rights. International aid should support the participation of all sectors of East Timorese society in the transition process, particularly marginalized groups in civil society, to ensure that East Timor builds a free, independent, and sustainable democratic nation. Strengthening the capacity of local groups within civil society to influence policy and provide checks and balances on the transitional administration and future government structures should be both a short-term and long-term priority.

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