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Organizing the 1999 East Timorese Independence Referendum

Jamsheed Marker, United Nations Special Envoy to East Timor

Well, let's get to the present now -- I mean, leading up to the ballot, and I think this is important when one thinks of the future of East Timor. We decided -- the United Nations went out there with UNAMET, the Mission for East Timor, to organize this ballot. We did so without any U.N. military backing of any kind. As I said, we depended on security for the Indonesian people; all we had was the U.N.'s mobile force and authority, which we exercised to the utmost, and we were there all the time.

We set up these polling booths. We set a very elaborate registration process. We had a very elaborate education process by radio and television, telling the East Timorese people what it was all about, what it meant in acceptance or rejection, an education program on that; and also assuring them that their ballot would be secret, that nobody would know which way they voted, and therefore they should not be intimidated.

Now, there was a great deal of intimidation that went on by the pro-integration forces, whereas the pro-independence forces -- Xanana was still in prison, he wasn't allowed out -- were not able to campaign. This is something we watched very carefully. The Secretary-General had said that at the time of the ballot, there must be an even playing field. Point of fact, there was not. All the facilities and all the action was taken by the pro-integrationists, including a lot of threatening.

But I spoke to Xanana about this, we followed it very carefully, and I said that I think we ought to go ahead with this. And he said -- and so did the bishops, for that matter -- that it doesn't matter. "We've been campaigning for twenty-five years, and so we're not worried about not being able to campaign right now. We know what's going to happen." And so that was one thing that persuaded me to stay the course.

And then came the day for the registration of voters, and the voters came out and registered. They came out from the hills, they came out from the villages, they came out -- they braved everything to come out and register and get that little registration slip in their hands, which was to them the most valuable thing in their lives, and then they went back into the hills again. And we checked on the figures.

The Indonesian elections had just taken place two weeks -- three weeks before, and the turnout for that was something like 320,000. The turnout for this registration was 450,000. In the first case, of course, they had all been herded into and pushed; in this case they were obviously being -- but in spite of that, they went out. Once that happened, I was convinced that we had to give them the chance to exercise this ballot; otherwise, this would never occur again, no matter what, and it was a moral responsibility that we had. So we moved everything that we could to give maximum publicity.