07 March 2012

Reports of voter intimidation in East Timor

Source: Sky News Wednesday March 7, 2012 - Concerns have been raised about possible intimidation of voters in a number of electoral districts in East Timor by members of the military loyal to their former chief and presidential hopeful Taur Matan Ruak.

East Timorese will vote on March 17 in what will be just the second free presidential election in the tiny country since it gained independence a decade ago.

Despite leading candidates, including incumbent president Jose Ramos-Horta, having downplayed the risk of a repeat of the violence which marred elections in 2007, observers on the ground have voiced fears about the potential for unrest.

'I am completely reassured about security,' Dr Ramos-Horta said told AAP.

'Our police and the United Nations police are alert all over the country. They have tremendous experience over the years in assessing the situation, in pre-empting any security threats so I am very confident it will be okay.'

But in a concerning development, witnesses have reported seeing serving members of the military directly involved in the campaign of Mr Ruak, affectionately known as TMR, who resigned as chief of the armed forces in 2011.

Soldiers were witnessed at his election campaign launch in Dili last week, and have since been seen districts outside the capital supporting Mr Ruak, including in Baucau, one of the electorates seen as crucial to winning the presidency.

The direct involvement of serving soldiers in election campaigns is strictly prohibited in East Timor.

There have also been reports that soldiers, in uniform, have been handing out election paraphernalia in support of Mr Ruak in the district of Same on East Timor's south coast.

Witnesses also reported that the soldiers were armed, and had arrived in vehicles belonging to the F-FDTL (East Timorese armed forces).

The presidential race is largely seen as a contest between three candidates: Mr Ruak, who has the support of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao's Reconstruction of East Timor (CNRT) party, Dr Ramos-Horta and FRETILIN's Francisco Guterres.

The chief of the F-FDTL, Major-General Lere Anan Timur, warned last month that members of the armed forces while free to express their support by voting should not be directly involved in assisting election campaigns.

He said it was a serious offence and that measures would be taken if members of the F-FDTL were found to be directly assisting the campaigns of any of the candidates.

Violence in East Timor saw it on the brink of civil war in 2006 while unrest flared again in 2007, followed by assassination attempts against Dr Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Gusmao in 2008.

The violence in 2006 lead to the deployment of international forces including about 400 Australian troops.

Along with a contingent of just under 1000 United Nations security personnel, they are scheduled to withdraw following parliamentary elections which will be held in June.

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