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U.N. wants talks on East Timor constitution to start in September

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July 1, 2000       


UNITED NATIONS, (AP) - The top U.N. official in East Timor said Thursday he expects grassroots consultations to begin in September on the kind of government and constitution the people want when the territory becomes independent possibly late next year.


"We would like the village chief, the sub-district assembly, the district council, to tell us how they feel" on important issues including whether the country should have a presidential or parliamentary system, U.N. administrator Sergio Vieira de Mello told a news conference.


At an open Security Council meeting on Tuesday, he predicted elections in the former Indonesian territory - and possibly independence - will take place "at some point between Aug. 30 and December of the year 2001."


Elaborating on the timetable Thursday, Vieira de Mello said the United Nations, which is running East Timor during its transition to independence, plans to launch "a very broad consultative process" immediately after the former independence movement known as the Timorese National Council of Resistance holds its national congress in August.


This would involve taking a skeleton outline of a constitution to villagers throughout the territory to explain what the elements of a constitution are - and the different options that exist under each section, he said.


After gathering their responses, the tentative idea is to create a committee of Timorese and international constitutional experts to put together a preliminary text "which we hope could be ready by March-April next year," Vieira de Mello said.


The United Nations has just started reflecting on different scenarios of what would happen next, he said.


In one scenario, a constituent assembly would be elected and it would then review and amend the preliminary draft of the constitution and eventually approve a final text, Vieira de Mello said. It would then convert itself into East Timor's first legislative assembly and establish the new government.


Under another accelerated scenario, a referendum on a new constitution could be held on the same day as elections for a legislative assembly, he said.


"These are two models, but they are not the only ones," he said.


On Aug. 30, the people of East Timor voted overwhelmingly to break free from Indonesia's rule, sparking a rampage by anti-independence militias. Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, after Portugal hastily pulled out its 400-year-old colonial administration.


Vieira de Mello said "a few hundred extremists" continue to launch hit and run attacks from West Timor, which remains part of Indonesia.


The Indonesian military has arrested some militia members, confiscated their weapons and barred them from training around refugee camps in West Timor housing about 120,000 refugees from East Timor, he said.


"We would like the Indonesian military to go one step further which is to disarm them completely and remove them from the camps," Vieira de Mello said. "We believe this is possible, so we will be repeating this request ... in particular to the regional military

commander, who is the man who can deliver."


The strength of the U.N. military force in East Timor - now about 8,500 troops - depends on the external threats and the internal security situation, which is now calm.


Vieira de Mello told the Security Council that he believes Secretary-General Kofi Annan will approve a plan to cut the U.N. force by 1,405 people between now and April.


If Indonesia takes "stern measures" against the extremist militia members and the external threat disappears "as I hope will be the case," then the United Nations can downsize the force faster, he said Thursday.


The United States is pressing for cuts in the force as quickly as possible. Vieira de Mello said a company of Filipino soldiers left

10 days ago from the eastern sector of the territory, which is the quietest.


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