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East Timor Prepares for Democracy

Officials in East Timor are counting the votes following the election last week for a constituent assembly that will lead the territory to full independence next year. East Timorese leaders, aided by the United Nations, are pressing to prepare the people for their responsibilities in a democratic country.

East Timorese leaders say their people passionately want independence and struggled hard to obtain it. But they say because of 500 years of political repression, few of them are aware of the civic responsibilities that are needed in an effective multiparty democracy.

One of the leaders of the independence struggle who is likely to be the country's first president, Xanana Gusmao, says the lack of civic education worries him, especially in the first years of self-rule. "We will need participation from the civil society to help build in the consciousness that the foundation of our country is an act of all the people," said Mr. Gusmao. A study by the Asia Foundation last March revealed that only five percent of the population understood the purpose of the recent elections or the role of the constitution.

In response, the transitional administration launched programs to educate voters on democracy, elections, and political campaigns.

The Director of Civic Education, Colin Stewart, acknowledges the program started very late. But he says by last July it had trained over 5,500 community leaders and involved more than 100,000 East Timorese. "We have focused on basics. One of our key messages was tolerance: the fact that if somebody has a different political view than you, they are allowed to have that view and it is not acceptable to bash them over the head," he said. "The concept of multiparty democracy, that if you want to have democratic choices you have to have several choices."

Because one-half of the people of East Timor are illiterate, aid workers have adopted innovative approaches, like using theater pieces to illustrate the importance of multiple parties and the constitution.

In addition, more than 30,000 people attended 200 U.N.-sponsored hearings to discuss the new constitution and debate the kinds of political, legal and educational systems they want.

The U.S.-based National Democratic Institute is one of any groups active at the grassroots level. Its director here, Jim Della-Giacama, says his group is also trying to develop civic institutions. "In the future we will be doing more political research in support for civil society organizations and trying to build local capacity for civic education and civic advocacy," said Mr. Della-Giacama. But Mr. Della-Giacama says a major challenge is the lack of infrastructure, roads, communications and mass media.

Another major push is to educate East Timorese on human rights and individual freedoms. The director of the Human Rights Unit of the U.N. transitional administration, Patrick Burgess, says many East Timorese are not aware of their basic rights. "The population in East Timor has no experience of human rights other than as victims," Mr. Burgess says. "They don't know that you have a right not to be locked up without any warning or any reason. They don't know that you have the right to travel in your country without being stopped, or the right to say what you believe, or to follow your own religion, or any of those rights."

Mr. Burgess says it is also necessary to build strong institutions to guarantee individual freedoms, like an independent judiciary and professional security forces.

U.N. officials say great strides have been made in recent months, and note the voter turnout of more than 90 percent in the recent elections is clear evidence. Nevertheless they say much remains to be done, and underscore the new nation will need strong, charismatic leadership to help it navigate the difficult passages of early independence.