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Thursday, August 26, 1999 Published at 10:24 GMT 11:24 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Eyewitness: Fear casts shadow over Timor poll

East Timorese registering to vote...but will the UN gamble pay off?

By BBC Correspondent Jonathan Head in East Timor

East Timor
A long straight road runs out of the town of Maliana across the dry plateau from which this frontier town nestles beneath East Timor's rugged central mountains. Right now there is a lot more traffic than usual.

The BBC's Jonathan Head: "The birth of a new country will be difficult"
Trucks and buses are leaving Maliana piled high with people and their possessions.

It is an exodus which casts a long shadow over the UN supervised referendum scheduled for Monday.

People are fleeing further attacks by the pro-Jakarta militias who are opposed to the referendum with the barely concealed backing of the local Indonesian military.

Poorly trained

Few in the pro-independence camp dare to campaign openly here; some have died, many others have been injured, their offices have been smashed.

[ image: Campaigners have to work quietly for independence in Maliana]
Campaigners have to work quietly for independence in Maliana
Even the UN staff here feel powerless to counter the militia offensive. The UN compound in Maliana still bears the scars of a militia attack in June which forced the UN to delay its programme for the referendum.

The police assigned by Jakarta to look after security do almost nothing. They are poorly trained, poorly paid and they know the army is running the show.

This area has 45,000 registered voters, 10% of the total in East Timor. The UN acknowledges that if the thousands of residents who have recently left Maliana cannot come back they will be disenfranchised.

Under the rules of the referendum voters much cast their ballots in the same place where they registered.

Symbol of hope

The picture is very different in the village of Hatakesi, perched high on a forested hill top above the town of Liquisa.

[ image: Pro-independence separatist Falintil guerrillas]
Pro-independence separatist Falintil guerrillas
It is just a thirty minute drive from Liquisa, a militia stronghold, yet this is already Falintil territory.

The green, white and blue flag of the independence movement is plastered everywhere, beside faded portraits of Taur Matan Ruak, the jailed rebel leader who is a symbol of hope for a better future for so many East Timorese.

Here the UN can operate freely without fear of interference by the militias, or worse, fear of retribution by the paramilitaries against the villagers they visit on the coast, which has inhibited their voter education programme.

People walk from miles around to Hatakesi to hear the UN staff patiently run through the procedures on voting day. Many are illiterate farmers who cannot know what difficulties await them if they vote to break away from Indonesia, and yet this is their unanimous choice.

Lives at risk

Activists of the CNRT, the political organisation which represents all East Timorese groups in favour of independence, may be right when they declare that they do not need to campaign. As 23 years of brutality at the hands of the Indonesian military has already done their work for them.

Remarkably even in Maliana support for independence remains strong, despite the huge risk to anyone saying so openly. The opinion among the few people left shopping in the main market was almost all for independence.

In a tiny house just outside the town a group of nervous students roll banners and voting instructions in the hope that they can once again go out to campaign for independence. It is not likely. They must know that in the event of further attacks on the town they will be lucky to escape with their lives.

Of the militias there is now nothing to be seen. Just days ago they were everywhere in Maliana brandishing their weapons.

Huge capacity for disruption

The disappearance is only likely to be temporary. The UN believes the Indonesian military can turn them on and off at will.

A few they think are genuine hard-line opponents of independence; the rest are unemployed young men either forced or bribed to take part in the militia attacks. Either way their capacity for disruption in this already traumatised country is enormous.

This is one of the smallest UN operations of its kind in the organisation's history, and it is also one of the weakest.

Fierce determination

So much of the organisation of the vote depends on the co-operation of the Indonesian authorities, and the UN has received very little of what was promised by Jakarta when it signed the New York peace agreement in May.

Despite that, a lot has been achieved in a very short space of time. The unexpectedly large numbers who registered to vote revealed a fierce determination among the Timorese to decide their own future.

If in the end the referendum succeeds in settling the East Timor conflict it will have done so at less cost and in much less time than most other UN operations.

But the cost to the East Timorese people has already been high. If the UN's gamble in going ahead with the referendum fails, that cost could be a great deal higher in the months to come.

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