East Timor Puts Its Principles on Paper

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Dili these days is a hectic place. With independence less than two months away, East Timor's capital is in a spin organizing fireworks, cleaning its streets and preparing for a huge contingent of visiting well-wishers. The Constituent Assembly too is in a rush-composing, debating and approving a constitution. That mighty task was completed last week, when the Assembly signed the document setting out the principles at the heart of the new nation.

Members applauded as the constitution-the result of six months' work-was passed. It gives East Timorese rights they have long dreamed of: freedom of speech and assembly, a multiparty political system and universal suffrage. The new republic's President (due to be elected April 14) will chair the Council of State, a political advisory body, and have the power to veto legislation. Vasco de Almeida, a law professor from Portugal's University of Lisbon and a consultant on the constitution's drafting, says Assembly members revised some articles four or five times: "They were determined not to give any reason for complaint."

They haven't always succeeded. Many East Timorese were angered by the Assembly's vote to turn itself into the first national parliament without fresh elections. Others complained that the constitution's short deadline allowed only one week to be set aside for public consultation. "It hasn't seemed like a consultation but like a pronouncement by the Assembly," says Cecilio Carminha Freitas, executive director of Dili's ngo Forum. "The people don't feel that this is their constitution." Fernando de Araujo, Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs and president of Partido Democratico, which has seven members in the Assembly, says his party is already looking forward to the revision-due in six years: "The people didn't have time to read it."

Those who did would have found a section honoring the resistance struggle during the Indonesian occupation, and another barring police from

forcibly entering homes at night (a common experience under Indonesian rule), except when those within are in danger. Besides acknowledging the past, the framers hope their constitution will help realize East Timorese people's hopes. De Almeida says that will depend on their ability to apply its principles. "It has all the ingredients to make it work," he says, "but it will need political will and financial support to do that."

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