107 Memorandum to Canberra

Jakarta, 7 March 1975


Portuguese Timor—Preparing for Democracy

During my visit to Portuguese Timor I saw one of the first democratic elections in the territory. It was at Iliomar in the district of Lauten on 2 March and was one of a series of similar elections in that district. They are an experiment. If they succeed the system of elections would be adopted, with minor alterations, throughout the territory. For the Portuguese Administration the elections have two basic objectives. To decolonise the district political and administrative structure by involving the people and to educate the people in democracy.

[matter omitted]

  1. The elections represented a primitive form of democracy. It was market day at Iliomar on 2 March. When Lieutenant Rial, from the political affairs office in the Administration in Dili, arrived those who wished to vote -they numbered several hundreds- gathered in a field. Major Rial was assisted by the district civil administrator, an interpreter and representatives of UDT and FRETILIN, who adjudicated in any dispute. (APODETI had initially supported the elections seeing them, as did UDT and FRETILIN, as a necessary part of the decolonisation process. Subsequently APODETI refused to participate because of its program of non-cooperation with the government resulting from the ban on its radio program.) There were to be two votes, one for the chief of the suco of Fuato, the other for the chief of the suco of Iliomar. Participants in each election were grouped together.1
  2. I saw only the first election. Before Lieutenant Rial could explain the procedure, supporters of the challenger were arguing with him. They did not want an election. Most people in the suco disliked the existing chief, they said. Thus he should be summarily deposed in the time honoured fashion. Lieutenant Rial explained the meaning of the election and the democratic process. After a long, quite heated, discussion the Lieutenant won and the election proceeded.
  3. Each person, the men before the women, took one stone and, in turn, placed it in one of two baskets. The baskets were distinctively marked and the people had been told several times which was for each candidate. So the vote would be secret these baskets were inside a large drum. To prevent people voting twice they filed past the drum from one side to the other. The party representatives jointly supervised the voting and the counting of the stones. On this occasion the challenger won. As far as I could judge the decision was accepted by the defeated faction.
  4. Lieutenant Rial said that the average number of people voting in the elections was about 50% of those eligible. For instance, in the suco of Leuro the possible vote was 496. 223 (including 65 women) voted for the existing chief and one against. In the suco of Souro the possible vote was 969. 368 voted for the existing chief and 37 against him. One stone missed the basket and was declared an invalid vote. 104 women voted in that election. It was possible to abstain from voting by telling the supervisor. One abstention had been recorded so far. The party representatives had decided that a 50% vote was sufficient.
  5. Three main principles underlie the organisation of the elections. First, they were not party elections. The issues were local. Lieutenant Rial said, however, that APODETI had sought to stir up trouble in connection with the elections in several villages. There were also reports that FRETILIN had organised candidates. It would be strange if this were not the case. At Iliomar though no party influence was noticeable.
  6. Secondly, the decolonization program recognised that the traditional power structure in the villages-the chiefs-was important to the people. It respected this structure but combined with it the western democratic practice of voting. Where there were kings the proposal was to make the kings non-elected district councillors. Their position would be respected and they would retain their importance. But their discretionary power would be reduced through their inclusion in the Council. The Portuguese realised that when they left the Timorese may choose not to continue with the new system.
  7. Thirdly, the program sought to introduce the people to the democratic process. It would demonstrate that the chief's authority depended on his maintaining the people's confidence. The people would become aware that they all, women included, could participate publicly in their own government. It sought to make them conscious that Portugal aimed at the democratic organisation of the administration with the liberty of expression and the right of people to join together in pursuit of a common program.
  8. This system of elections was open to abuse. It might be possible to vote twice, though others in the village would probably notice. While the vote was secret it was possible to tell in which area of the large drum the voter placed his stone and, by knowing which basket was in that area, to know how a person voted. An unscrupulous group could take advantage of this. In the election at Iliomar, however, there was no evidence of abuse.2
  9. The elections, and the restructuring of local politics and administration of which they form a part, demonstrate that the new Portuguese administration in Timor was genuine in its attempt to decolonise the territory. They claim to see this objective as their duty under the program of the Armed Forces Movement. In Iliomar at least there was no doubting the enthusiasm of the Portuguese in this experimental election system. An enormous obstacle to their success, however, is the backwardness of the people, particularly the lack of skilled manpower. Considerable time would be required; the Governor and his advisors recognised this. Whether they are given time, however, would depend on the Government in Lisbon.
  10. Copies of this memorandum are being sent to UNNY and the Australian Embassies in Lisbon and Washington.



[NAA: A10463, 801/13/11/1, vii]