Democratic process

Bobonaro Travel Blog

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STAE office to collect ballot materials

Wednesday we were to get together in our teams and complete a reconnaissance of our Polling Centres.  With HU and myself from National Traffic were two staff members from Maliana, one UNPol (Nazmul) and one Language Assistant (Almeiro).  We had 3 polling centres in the Bobonaro sub-district; Coli Mau, Male Ubu and Teba Bui.  They were in reasonable proximity to each other, about 20kms or 90mins drive from Maliana.


The first thing we did was head to the Bobonaro sub-district HQ.

That mountain in the distance is where I'll be working
  There were about a dozen teams for our sub-dist. And when we got there we wandered around for no particular reason until we were assigned a PNTL officer and were told to head out on our recci.  Whilst wandering around I chatted to Mike who had been told we would all be sleeping here at the s-d HQ.  This is a very typical PNTL police station, a sparsely furnished concrete building with toilets unfit for animals let alone prisoners.  Unfortunately these toilets are not prisoner toilets but used by prisoners and the 30 odd staff from the station.  I struggled to stand in the small room because of the smell and the unsanitary condition of the thing.  I was glad to do my #1s and get out – like the toilet at Uatolari and in my own NTU office, I would NOT be using this thing for #2s!!!  At least with the Uatolari and NTU toilets the UN knows they are used by us and pays for them to be cleaned.
Male Ubu village
  This station has no UN staff and PNTL do not have a budget for cleaners (no photograph so please use your imagination if you dare –then double the horror) so nothing gets cleaned.


As it transpired we did not have to sleep at the s-d hq which was a blessing, instead at the end of the day we were informed we would be sleeping at our polling centres.


Because of my status in the vehicle I had assumed the position of team leader and directed proceedings as far as the movement around our three villages.  We were about 40 mins drive from s-d hq, halfway up one of the many mountains in the area.  Each village was about 10mins from the next so when you considered we had been sent out here for security of the ballots and peace keeping in relation to expected unrest, it seemed pretty poor planning that we had three locations, one vehicle and one language assistant.

Mountain housing at Colimau
  One blessing was that each centre would be manned by 2 PNTL so at least there would be an element of security as we moved between the centres in an attempt to oversee all three.


After we had completed our recci it was my assessment we only had one place that could bring trouble.  Coli Mau sucu reported that the sitting Chefe (Mayor) had made death threats to the two new candidates if he should be ousted.  I questioned him on this and he reported there would be calm and that he was happy to abide by the democratic result.  My first impression of the man made me think that if I were required to vote, he would not get mine.  I decided we would be spending most of our time at this sucu (village), particularly when the vote count was conducted.  It was just fortunate that Coli Mau was at the highest end of our track and we could collect the ballots from Male Ubu and Teba Bui as we descended.

My new best friend


Upon our return to Maliana we made our report and at 1630hrs the PNTL did their usual thing (a nationwide practise), they fell-in for daily parade.  They were arranged into their sub-district units so we were all told we should join our colleagues.  Our organisation is about as good at organising ourselves into a formation as we are organising everything else.  It was a very amusing 45 minutes standing in the sun not understanding the Tetum briefing for the PNTL and not hearing the briefing from our DC.  When we were all dismissed there was still general confusion, perhaps more-so than after we had been issued the operation order because, as is typical in this country, things had changed, we were now informed that we would be sleeping at the centres as of tomorrow night because election materials would be delivered out to the centres tomorrow.  We were to front up with all our kit at 0700hrs where we would join the STAE (Election organisation) teams and head out in convoy.

Excited children
  That didn’t go down too well!!


Nazmul and Hu put up a fight which I quickly dealt with as far as Hu was concerned because I was his commander but Nazmul would not accept my appraisal of the situation.  I thought it was pretty clear but he went on and on, suggesting we could return to our beds in Maliana overnight and still be back by the start time of 7am on election day.  I told him it was our responsibility to ensure the safety of the materials, the STAE staff, the PNTL and each other and for that reason we would not be quitting our posts.  He was still not convinced even when the District Commander called him over to tell him he had heard our discussion and there would be disciplinary action if anyone did not obey the orders as come from Dili.  I could see there would be unhappiness in our team.  As far as I was concerned it was a continuing adventure.  Back at the Filo Hu was still unsure about the need to pack for a night away but I told him he should best get everything together tonight because if we were to gather at 7am and head out at 9am, there may be no time to prepare in the morning.





We got up in darkness.  Our breakfast had been prepared and we loaded our gear in the car and headed to the station.  No-one seemed to be doing anything and after standing around for 10mins the DC told us we were to be at the STAE office.  Down there things were well under way but we still stood around until 9.30am before the Bobonaro team set out in convoy.

  Nazmul was late showing up and when he did he pressed me again about our 1.5hour drive time back to Maliana.  I was over the discussion by now and told him he’d better get himself organised to stay out for the night because that was going to happen.  I told he and Hu that I would take Coli Mau as that was the likely trouble spot and the others would decide between them which they wanted.  Almeiro would go where-ever we had no English speaking locals.  Nazmul had to go off and find bedding and food so I sent Hu off with him in case we never saw him again.


They arrived back just in time to form into our convoy and head to the Bobonaro s-d hq.  Bobonaro town is at the end of a winding road.  The station is at the far end of the town.  When we arrived there we immediately turned around and went back out again so we could all go our separate ways to our sucus.  I didn’t really understand the logic behind it but in this organisation I am learning not to question lack of logic.  By the time my 12 months is up I should have the understanding of a quality UNPol member.


Taba Bui was the lowest of our three spots but our STAE vehicle had to deliver materials to Cotabot as well.  This sucu was about 10 mins up the side road Teba Bui was on.  After that we returned to the main road up the mountain and stopped at Male Ubu where the Stae vehicle had dropped the materials, staff and PNTL a few minutes earlier.  I confirmed everything was good as far as their understanding was concerned and headed up to Coli Mau.  It was my intention to move between all three centres on an hourly basis until just before dark, when we would split up and stay with our sucu, making contact by mobile phone if there was any issue.


When we got up to Coli Mau we found the materials sitting in the polling centre with a single Stae member, the PNTL and 2 other Stae officers had been invited to the Chefe’s house for lunch.  I was furious that the importance of the materials had been lost on these men just minutes into our mission, especially when it was reported the current Chefe would resort to desperate measures to retain his post.  I marched with Almeiro the 1km to his house and marched back with the 4 missing men.  The Chefe was not pleased by my rudeness and when I took the time to thank him for his offer of hospitality but there was a need to exercise impartiality in this democratic process and the security of the materials was paramount he showed no sign of accepting my explanation and offered me no courteous farewell at our departure.  It crossed my mind that a man that could threaten the lives of those in his village may experience no hesitation at slaughtering some officious Malai (foreigner) that should be an obstical to his ambitions.


Once we were all settled into our duties at the centre I gathered the UNPol team and headed back down to Male Ubu.  Upon our arrival back there I found no sign of the 2 PNTL officers and was told they had gone to the Chefe Sucu’s house for lunch –Oh My GOD!  I went through the whole process again but this time one of the PNTL was obviously annoyed and for the rest of the mission ignored any of my orders put to him by Almeiro.  Male Ubu I left in Hu’s hands, Almeiro had also organised himself a bed here for the night.


Nazmul had no bedding and I don’t think, any food.  For that reason I put him on the lowest position at Teba Bui where it would be a little warmer.  I also told him to keep the car so he could sleep in that.


I guess we were about as ready as we could expect to be.


The next piece of information we had was that the people were always happy to be involved in the democratic process of electing a new chefe.  This had been done every 5 years for the past 500 so all in all there wasn’t expected to be too much trouble.  In fact it was tradition that the event was carried out with some celebration and each polling station would be the site of a party that would see dancing all night long.  I was a little dismayed as I had hoped we would be able to sleep in the office with the Stae and the materials so we would be fresh for whatever the end of election may bring.


When Nazmul delivered me up to Coli Mau at 1800hrs the stereo was already set up and people were starting to gather.  The PNTL showed me the materials in the office at the back of the community building and told me they hoped I would sleep comfortably in there once they cleared some floor space.  I thought it would be good as I didn’t want to spoil the party with my presence, this event was all about the community, not me.  I sat on the floor of the centre and when the generator started at about 6.30pm the music started and I was already surrounded by people dancing and had been greeted by most of the attendees who, in the respectful ways of the Timorese, saw me as a special guest.


I was fortunate enough to have Raul as my PNTL off-sider.  His English was very good and he sat beside me for most of the night, chasing away the curious children when their staring at the Malai became overwhelming and introducing me to the parade of elders and officials as they entered the building.  When the Chefe arrived he greeted everyone in the circle but me although 20 minutes later he did return and shake my hand –perhaps he wasn’t going to kill me in my sleep.


By midnight I knew I was not going to get into the office.  I had seen several people going in there and a couple of times I had got up to check the three ballot boxes were safe.  Raul kept assuring me that there would be no trouble here as everyone was happy about the vote.  I could see myself that there was joy in the air as the young men carried out the international practise of selecting girls to dance with.  In between his suggestions I go to sleep right there in the middle of the dance floor, Raul suggested I dance. 


The alternate suggestions came from all corners and finally at about 12.30am I was given a grass mat and a pillow so I could sleep.  I was happier sitting on my own bed roll because the mat was large and intruded further into the dancers space but it did seem to keep the staring children at a more polite distance because it seemed the sleeping mat was not something you walked or sat on if it was not your own. 

  Of course I was still in full uniform and wearing my duty belts with all my equipment (including pistol), laying down on that lot was not going to be a comfortable action and I was still not happy about ignoring my duty anyway.


At 2am, sitting beside the door on my bedroll and a sleeping mat at the edge of the crammed dance floor I nodded off for 15 minutes.  Just enough to freshen my eyes for the next couple of hours.  At 4am a lot of dancers had gone home but there were still several young men joining me on my mat to practise their English.  Some were good and the conversation was pleasant, others were not so good and the conversation went something like this, “You’ve got short hair.”

“Yes”, I said.  “I am losing my hair like my father did.”

-Blank stare-


At 4.30am there were more people sleeping than dancing.  The office door had remained closed for a couple of hours and my sleeping mat was being enjoyed by two other sleepers.  I thought I could risk grabbing a couple of hours or I’d never be any use at the end of the day.  Raul and Able (my other PNTL partner) had spent most of the night dancing with the local girls but I had refused all the suggestions to join in as I still felt inclined to remain on duty and not impose on the community’s celebration.


I napped from about 4.30 to 5.30am.  At 6am the music was switched off, the last few dancers were sent packing and the Stae officials started to set up the room for the election.  I got up and went out the back of the building to complete my ablusions.  There is no water in Coli Mau village so there are no toilets.  I cleaned my teeth in the usual way, with bottled water and thanked my lucky stars I was a boy.  Being a Malai still meant I had a very curious audience but hey, that’s just another part of the adventure.

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STAE office to collect ballot mate…
STAE office to collect ballot mat…
Convoy delivering the voting mater…
Convoy delivering the voting mate…
That mountain in the distance is w…
That mountain in the distance is …
Male Ubu village
Male Ubu village
Mountain housing at Colimau
Mountain housing at Colimau
My new best friend
My new best friend
Excited children
Excited children
photo by: goezi