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Gusmao urges Timor reconciliation

Fretlin rally
Fretlin is the most established party contesting Thursday's poll  

By CNN's Joe Havely in Dili

DILI, East Timor (CNN) -- Former East Timorese independence leader Xanana Gusmao has called on voters in the territory to look to heal the wounds of the past as they prepare to go to the polls in the territory’s first ever free elections.

Speaking to CNN he said the further East Timor progressed toward nationhood the more important it was to bring reconciliation between those who had fought for independence and those who had fought to remain a part of Indonesia.

The people of East Timor, he said, should “forgive each other and look to the future.”

Gusmao said it was important that those who led the violence that devastated the territory following the pro-independence vote in 1999 be brought to justice.

CNN's Maria Ressa reports on the upcoming East Timor vote (August 27)

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But he said it was equally important to be realistic about East Timor’s situation and take certain priorities in the building of a new nation.

“We cannot put ourselves on the moon,” he said, “we have many important jobs to do.”

“The sacrifices -- all the dead -- will be in vain, if we don’t hold true to our promises so that our people feels that, yes, independence is worth it and will lead to an improvement in conditions.”

The former guerilla leader who was captured and jailed by the Indonesian authorities in the 1990s announced at the weekend that he would be standing as a candidate for the territory’s first president -- a post he is expected to win by a landslide.

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However, he told CNN he was unhappy that he was forced to run as a result of pressure from other political parties, saying it was unlikely he would make a good president.

He said being a guerilla leader fighting for independence was very different from running the country.

Campaign ends

Gusmao’s comments came on the last day of campaigning for the election with Wednesday declared a cooling off day ahead of actual polling on Thursday.

In the capital, Dili, the normally quiet roads were packed with trucks, cars, motorcycles and any other kind of vehicle carrying supporters of the Fretilin party heading for a rally in the city stadium. Inside a crowd in the tens of thousands was addressed by the party’s senior leaders.

Fretlin rally
Tens of thousands gathered to hear the Fretlin party's address  

By far the biggest response however was directed at the rock band who belted out versions of East Timorese resistance songs and covers of Western groups -- most notably ‘I Want to Break Free’ by Queen.

Fretilin is the oldest and most established party out of 16 contesting Thursday’s poll.

It was created in 1974 when the Portuguese colonial powers abruptly upped and left, but most of its leaders have lived in exile for the past three decades following Indonesia’s annexation of the territory a year later.

Because of its long standing and its key role in opposition to Indonesian rule, the party is expected to dominate the upcoming election.

The poll will decide the make up of East Timor’s first national assembly, tasked with writing the new nation’s constitution, and if the party wins 85% or more of the vote -- as some observers say it well could -- it will be able to draw up the constitution on its own.

One party state

That prospect has raised fears that East Timor could begin its democracy a virtual one party state and some observers have criticized the UN election officials for rushing into the vote without giving other parties the time to develop a support base.

Despite Tuesday’s carnival atmosphere in Dili there is also a degree of apprehension and caution -- something can only be seen as natural given what happened here two years ago following East Timor’s last free vote on independence from Indonesia.

Hundreds were killed, homes and businesses destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of people forced to flee their homes -- and their homeland -- as pro-Indonesian militiamen and their supporters in the Indonesian military went on the rampage.

Many have yet to return from refugee camps in West Timor.

Despite this and the challenges that lay ahead the UN says it is pleased with the largely peaceful nature of campaigning and is looking forward to an election free from violence.

“Many prophets of doom predicted violence, bloodshed and clashes between the political parties,” the head of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), Sergio De Mello, said Tuesday.

’Heroic efforts’

Instead, he said, “the Timorese people have given us a lesson in democracy, in political maturity and I applaud the people of East Timor for that.”

His comments followed the release of an eve of election message to the East Timorese people from the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan.

In it he praised the territory’s “heroic efforts” to rebuild their lives and urged East Timorese to exercise their vote -- an act he said “that is both your right and your responsibility.”

Speaking to reporters in Dili, De Mello appealed to the 16 parties contesting the poll to respect, “scrupulously the outcome of the elections”, saying that was what life in a democracy was all about.

“It is not political parties -- the narrow political interests -- that will win this election it is the people of East Timor -- they will be the winners, no one else.”

He said there were “no indications” that the militia who laid waste to much of East Timor following the 1999 independence referendum posed any threat to a peaceful vote.

“I believe the hardcore militia extremists learnt a lesson from the way we dealt with the infiltrations last year.

“I hope they will not test us again, because they will regret it.”

• East Timor government

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