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Electoral Insight – New Ways of Building Democracy

Electoral Insight – November 1999

The East Timor Vote: Canadians Contribute

Christine Jackson
Assistant Director of Operations, Elections Canada

A Japanese UN official trains a Timorese man to work at one of the 200 polling stations in East Timor on voting day, August 30.
A Japanese UN official trains a Timorese man to work at one of the 200 polling stations in East Timor on voting day, August 30.
Photo: AFP

On September 3, 1999, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, announced to the Security Council the result of the referendum held on August 30 among East Timorese citizens around the world. The vote was 21.5 percent (94 388) in favour of autonomy within Indonesia and 78.5 percent (344 580) against – a result in favour of separation. In a remarkable show of courage and determination, the people of East Timor had turned out in massive numbers to express their will. Almost 98 percent of the electorate participated: an unprecedented turnout, considering the prevailing atmosphere of intimidation, which threatened on a daily basis the lives of at least the locally employed staff of the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET).

In his statement, the Secretary-General said the United Nations would not fail the East Timorese, at the same time calling for an end to the violence that had broken out in East Timor immediately following the vote. A further statement on September 12 revealed that the Indonesian government had accepted the offer of a UN peacekeeping force to assist in restoring peace and security in East Timor.

The Role of the Canadians

For twenty-six current and former Canadian returning officers, assistant returning officers and other election administrators, the vote was the culmination of a once-in-a-lifetime experience on the other side of the world that left indelible memories. At the request of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), working on behalf of the UN, the twenty-six were selected for their expertise and competence from a group of some fifty people recommended by Elections Canada. They left for Indonesia at the beginning of July, returning safely to Canada two months later.

Their role as district electoral officers (DEOs) would be to supervise the local staff who administered registration and voting in places outside East Timor, in Indonesia and elsewhere, where East Timorese voters were living. To assist with the unexpectedly heavy registration and voting in East Timor itself, UNAMET subsequently asked for volunteers among the DEOs to work in East Timor; seven Canadians were deployed there during the latter part of the registration period and five for the vote itself.

The stories of some of those Canadians accompany this article.

Context of the Vote on East Timor

A United Nations poster promised East Timorese citizens that their vote in the August 30 referendum would be secret.
A United Nations poster promised East Timorese citizens that their vote in the August 30 referendum would be secret.

On May 5, 1999, Portugal, Indonesia and the United Nations concluded an historic set of agreements to resolve the long-standing issue of East Timor, a former Portuguese colony annexed by Indonesia in 1975 and subsequently plagued by violent internal conflict. The agreements empowered the Secretary-General of the UN to determine, through a popular consultation based on a universal, direct and secret ballot, whether the East Timorese people would accept or reject a proposed special autonomy for East Timor within the unitary Republic of Indonesia.

On June 11, 1999, the UN Security Council established UNAMET, which proceeded to organize and conduct the vote in less than three months. It registered 451 792 potential voters in East Timor and around the world, in a process which the Electoral Commission deemed a sound basis for the conduct of the vote. Some 24 000 of the registrants were located outside East Timor.

UNAMET's electoral section conducted the process through eight regional offices, under the guidance of a Chief Electoral Officer (an American – Jeff Fischer), who was in charge of the organizational arrangements for the consultation process and, in particular, all activities related to registration and voting. Those activities were, in turn, overseen by a three-member Electoral Commission, composed of internationally known experts.

Qualifications to Vote and Voting

Those aged 17 years or more were eligible to vote in the popular consultation, provided:

  • they were born in East Timor, or
  • they were born outside East Timor but had at least one parent who was born in East Timor, or
  • they had a spouse in either of the two previous categories.

Residency in East Timor or even Indonesia was not a requirement. To facilitate registration and voting outside East Timor, special voting centres were opened in Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Surabaya, Denpasar and Ujung Pandang, all in Indonesia; Lisbon (Portugal); Maputo (Mozambique); and Macau. Additional sites in Australia, in Sydney, Darwin, Perth and Melbourne, were operated by the Australian Electoral Commission, with another centre located at UNHQ, New York.

The external polling called for in the May 5 agreements was conducted, on behalf of the United Nations, by the Australian Electoral Commission in Australia, and by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) everywhere else. The IOM field co-ordinator, the Electoral Assistance Division of the UN and the UNAMET electoral section shared responsibility for co-ordinating registration and voting outside East Timor.

The Ballot Paper

At polling stations on August 30, each voter was asked to choose between two questions:


"Do you accept the proposed special autonomy for East Timor within the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia?"



"Do you reject the proposed special autonomy for East Timor, leading to East Timor's separation from Indonesia?"

The United Nations logo was printed on the ballot papers, which included symbols to facilitate voting by illiterate persons. The symbols used were the flags of the state of Indonesia, which accompanied the first question, and of the East Timor independence movement, which appeared against the second question.

Organization of Registration and Voting

Voter registration took place during a period of twenty-four days under the supervision of two UN volunteers (the DEOs) in each of 200 polling centres. Those centres, in turn, were subdivided into 700 polling stations for voting purposes.

The UN undertook to ensure that the campaign would be free of intimidation. To achieve this, it conducted an information campaign on the process and prepared a campaign code of conduct, as well as other mechanisms to counteract intimidation attempts. The three-member Electoral Commission was to adjudicate any challenges or complaints, including those related to the results of the vote.

Information Campaign

UNAMET's mandate included the provision of equal access to radio and support of information activities for both sides of the question, so that all views could be presented freely.

To facilitate understanding among the electorate, the UN made available the text of the main agreement and the autonomy document to be voted on in five languages – Tetun, Bahasa, Indonesian, Portuguese and English – and undertook to disseminate and explain their contents in an impartial and factual manner, both inside and outside East Timor.

Making use of the radio stations and newspapers in East Timor, as well as other Indonesian and Portuguese media outlets, the United Nations also undertook to explain to voters the process and procedure of the vote, and the implications of an "accept" or "reject" vote.


Both Indonesia and Portugal were entitled to send an equal number of representatives to observe all phases of the consultation process.

Since the United Nations itself, through UNAMET, was organizing and conducting the popular consultation, it was neither responsible for assisting nor co-ordinating the activities of international observers. Nevertheless, those wishing to observe were required to obtain accreditation from the UN and to abide by a UN code of conduct.

Schedule of the Consultation Process

The schedule for the consultation process was established as follows:

  • Registration of voters: June 16 to August 4
  • Exhibition of voters lists and challenges/decisions on challenges and complaints: August 17-27
  • Political campaign: August 11-27
  • "Cooling off" period: August 28-29
  • Polling day: August 30, 1999

Note: the above was compiled from information posted on the United Nations (UNAMET) Web site at and from transcripts of the daily press briefings given by the representative of the UN Secretary-General at UNHQ in New York, posted at

Extracts from the Stories of Canadian Returning Officers on the Mission to Indonesia/East Timor:


EEC – European Economic Community
UNAMET – UN Mission in East Timor
DEO – District Electoral Officer
IOM – International Organization for Migration

Alice Killam

The Returning Officer for the Alberta riding of St. Albert, Alice Killam, worked in the UNAMET centre in Jakarta during the registration period and was one of five Canadians who volunteered to serve in East Timor for the actual vote. The following is an extract from one of her communications received during the registration phase.

"We were very tired, but humbled, serving the registrants, considering the complex process itself, the strict eligibility and identification requirements, coupled with the fact that, in many cases, these folks had travelled up to four days and nights just to get to us – young babies crying, very pregnant mothers sick and shaken from long sea journeys, and a very wise 84-year-old man whose smile and firm handshake just melted my heart. Thoughts of him, and the memories he must possess, bring the moment alive – again, again and again. What an honour to be here ... if just for a minute and another handshake ... another magical smile.

"Whether I return one day to a country called East Timor or a province called Timor Timur within Indonesia, I will be glad to return. And return, I will. Sincerely, Alice Killam."

Henri O'Reilly

Henri O'Reilly, Returning Officer for Palliser, Saskatchewan, volunteered to serve in East Timor during the voting phase. On his return to Canada, he was interviewed by the Moose Jaw Herald and also described his experiences by telephone to an Elections Canada staff member. The following segment is based on those interviews:

Henri O'Reilly was originally assigned with three others to Yogyakarta in Central Java, where he worked through the registration phase of the mission. His most moving experience of that period came when a group of political prisoners was brought from jail to register for the vote. Involved in the Santa Cruz massacre of 1991, they had received sentences of anywhere from five years to life for retaliating against Indonesian troops who had opened fire on a funeral procession.

On August 20, Henri responded to UNAMET's request for volunteers to help with the voting in East Timor, as they were short of staff there. So, on Saturday, August 28, he flew with delegations from Ireland and Finland on an EEC charter flight to Dili, the capital of East Timor. The next day a helicopter took him to the town of Suai, where UNAMET had a regional operation (and where, a week later, 40 residents were killed in a church).

Travelling with an Australian colleague from UNAMET, Catherine Williams, who fortunately spoke the local language, Henri left Suai the same afternoon and drove an hour and a half by Land Rover up into the mountains to the village of Fato Lillac near the border with West Timor, where the local population lives in thatched huts and is 80 percent illiterate. Arriving about 2:30 p.m., they spent the rest of the afternoon securing the building where they stored the ballot boxes with makeshift wire "locks" and training the local poll officials for the next day's work, before retiring for the night – with the boxes.

Rising at 4:30 a.m. on voting day, August 30, Henri and his colleague found the local people already lined up, waiting for them to open the poll at 6:00 a.m. By 11:45 a.m., everyone who was going to vote had voted – 776 of the 786 eligible electors, or a turnout of 98.7 percent.

To overcome the illiteracy problem, UNAMET had printed the two referendum questions on the ballot, each accompanied by a symbol, and had conducted a voter information program in the weeks leading up to voting day.

In Fato Lillac, as in other polling places, illiterate voters were permitted to mark the ballot by means of punching a hole, with a nail, through the symbol of their choice.

In order to get back to Suai before dark (about 6:00 p.m.), Henri and Catherine left the village in their Land Rover about 4:30 p.m. with the ballot boxes and an Indonesian police escort. The next morning, a helicopter flew the ballot boxes from the region back to Dili, returning that afternoon to pick up Henri and the other UNAMET workers. In Dili, they became aware of the emerging violence, hearing shots in the streets and talking to international journalists at the hotel. They were flown back to Jakarta the following day.

Although Henri never felt personally threatened, the local electoral staff hired by the international officials were very afraid and were constantly threatened. "People were telling us that they expected the violence to happen the day after the vote: they were right," Henri told the Moose Jaw Herald. He added that fourteen local poll staff told UNAMET officials that they had been warned "the payoff would come after the vote." Asked if he would do it all again, Henri replied: "Yes, it was a great experience."

Bill Twaddle

Bill Twaddle, Returning Officer for the Ontario riding of Bruce–Grey, was assigned to the East Timorese enclave in West Timor. On his return, he sent the following reflections on his experiences to Elections Canada:

"If I come home from Indonesia with one overall impression, it is of the dignity and courage of the East Timorese people – and the contrasts with the voting process in Canada.

"We all know now about the violence, intimidation, burnings, beatings and killings that have gone on in East Timor for many years. We are all too familiar with the escalation in recent months as the popular consultation moved forward. And, of course, we have seen the tragic aftermath of the overwhelming vote for independence.

"What impresses me so much is the determination of the East Timorese people to have a say in their future, knowing that having that say would undoubtedly create further violence and unrest. I do not claim to have a crystal ball: I cannot say that it was obvious in the days leading up to the vote that violence would break out on the scale it did, but there were plenty of signs that the result would not be quietly accepted.

"The East Timorese people themselves knew what the consequences might be. I saw none of the intimidation myself, but other Canadian DEOs talked about the threats they had heard against the local staff hired by UNAMET – threats that they would be killed, simply for working for UNAMET, once the UN was gone. Some of those threats, it seems, were indeed acted on.

"During my nine days in Timor, I was stationed in Oecussi in Ambeno Regency, the East Timorese enclave in West Timor. The Regency was quiet, with virtually none of the tension or intimidation that had been present in other areas. Yet the voters of Ambeno displayed the same proud courage, turning out in unexpectedly large numbers to register, and a second time to vote.

"I think about the complaints I received during the last federal election in Canada – about how people had to travel an extra few blocks to the polling station – and then I reflect on the hundreds of East Timorese who travelled, standing in the back of open trucks, 40 and 50 people crammed in for hours over virtually non-existent roads, just to stand in line for up to two days to register to vote.

"I think about how, in Canada, voting is so taken for granted that a big turnout is 70 percent, and can be as low as 40 percent (or less) in some municipal elections. And then I remember the almost 440 000 East Timorese who registered to vote (UNAMET had estimated 395 000 would register) and the overwhelming 98.6 percent turnout on the day of the vote. They voted, knowing the simple act of expressing their free will might, and in some cases did, cost them their lives.

"I think about how, in Canada, the integrity of the vote is so taken for granted that it is sometimes hard to get witnesses to the counting of the ballots after an election. And then I reflect on how that contrasts with Indonesia, where electoral corruption is somehow expected. Our every action was carried out under the close scrutiny of accredited observers, who took their responsibilities very seriously and exercised their right to monitor every step in the process, including staying with the ballot boxes from the end of voting until the boxes were opened and the ballots counted. That was not done out of distrust for the Canadians, but out of a sincere desire to know that the vote was conducted fairly and impartially.

"I recall the two or three occasions in the last Canadian federal election where unfortunate circumstances meant that we had to tell someone they would not be allowed to vote, because special balloting was closed and they could not attend their home poll. Then I remember the more than 100 East Timorese who travelled two days by speedboat and ship from the plywood factory in the rain forest of Borneo, only to be told that they had missed the registration deadline and, despite their appeals to UNAMET, they would not be allowed to register and vote. We were all impressed by the forceful, but calm and dignified way they made their protest, and by their mature acceptance of the decision.

"It was a great time and a truly rewarding experience, and one I would gladly undertake again. Two months in Indonesia, nine days in Timor, the experience of a lifetime – and a clear lesson in how well the electoral system works in Canada, and in just how much we take for granted."


The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.