Victory for the people

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 August, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 August, 2001, 12:00am

There are a dozen reasons why yesterday's election in East Timor was an amazing achievement, but it was independence leader Xanana Gusmao who summed it up in a sentence.

Time and again as he toured the polling stations, he told the waiting crowds: 'This is a poll with no losers. It is a victory for all the people. Even candidates who lose today will have another chance four years from now.'

Considering that a survey by the Asia Foundation in May showed that only five per cent of the population understood what the election was about, the massive three-month outreach operation by the United Nations - mainly a volunteer force - has been an extraordinary success. One or two among the thousands who turned up to cast their vote still thought they were electing a president, but they were the exceptions.

For the rest, this was a great experience; not quite the birth of a nation, but a very peaceful and positive step towards independence, which is expected - if all goes well - after a presidential election in April or May.

Such united support for the ballot is a good sign for the future. The people will need a lot more faith, patience and commitment to forge a self-sustaining democracy. They are starting from scratch, in a land ravaged by murder, violence, intimidation and destruction. After 26 years of oppression under Indonesia, and previous centuries of Portugal misrule, they have an opportunity to build a new country, though they have few tools, and little experience to call on.

But the courage and fortitude of the East Timorese has won them friends all over the world. Seven members of the Hong Kong Bar are among a group of international experts who have been over to help in establishing a legal system. The territory's 61 lawyers were not allowed to practise under the colonial system. They began without textbooks, photocopiers or fax machines, and they now face the task of framing a constitution to enshrine and protect the liberty of all its subjects.

Economically, they have a deal with Australia to exploit undersea oil and gas reserves which will bring in US$180 million a year from 2004. But with 80 per cent unemployment and high illiteracy, every cent will be needed, and more besides.

However, if candidates elected yesterday establish an open and transparent system of government; if they work with integrity and prudence to build the economy, there is every reason to hope the East Timorese will finally enjoy the benefits of democracy, prosperity and peace.