BY JANA DK
DILI — In its first major mobilisation since the beginning of East Timor's election campaign, on August 25 some 5000 Timorese Socialist Party members and supporters gathered at Dili's Independence Field for one of the most energetic, enthusiastic and political rallies the country has yet seen.
Converging on Dili from the districts of Liquica and Ermera at around 2pm, a convoy of some 30 or more trucks and cars, led by dozens of motorcycles, stretched for almost a kilometre as it headed down the coast road and into central Dili.
An hour later, separate convoys coming from the southern district of Aileu and Manatuto on the east coast — delayed by distance and difficult roads — arrived in a dazzling mix of dust, exhaust smoke and red flags.
PST organisers estimate that this represented only a small proportion of their nationwide support base. Due to financial limitations and the tyranny of distance, contingents which had planned to come from Baucau, Los Palos, Same, Suai and the Oecussi enclave in West Timor were unable to attend. Los Palos and Baucau are two of the party's newer support bases.
Organisers from Manatuto described how the lack of trucks to rent forced older people to let young party supporters take their spaces in the already overcrowded trucks — and how they shed tears as they cheered and watched the convoy depart.
Following opening remarks by the rally coordinator, singers and musicians gave a lively rendition of the party's anthem. The crowd — with raised arms and clenched fists — sang along enthusiastically and ended with calls of "Viva PST" and "Viva Socalisme". This was followed by music and a performance by traditional East Timorese dancers.
To many people's surprise the first speaker was resistance leader Xanana Gusmao. Although Gusmao has been present at a number of election rallies — usually in his former role as a journalist and photographer — this was the first time he had spoken at a political rally.
Earlier in the day, at the end of a nationally televised debate between 15 of the 16 political parties and independent candidates contesting the Constituent Assembly elections, Gusmao had declared that he would accept a nomination to run for president. He also stated that he would attend all of the parties' political rallies until the end of the official campaign period on August 28.
Gusmao began by thanking PST general secretary Avelino Coelho da Silva, party president Pedro da Costa, the party's international representative Azancot de Menezes and party spokesperson Nelson Correia, who he referred to as "respected comrades".
In his address, Gusmao stated that Marxism was a part of a social and democratic society and indicated his support for the PST as a Marxist-Leninist party. He emphasised the importance of non-violence — a condition upon which he agreed to accept a nomination for the presidency — and said that if socialism can change a society it should be accepted. He closed with the call, "Viva PST", to cheers and applause from the crowd.
Coelho later told Green Left Weekly that Gusmao's remarks were especially significant, as they send a clear signal to right-wing forces who are already attempting to whip up anti-socialist and anti-PST sentiment.
The final speaker — which everyone had been eagerly waiting for — was Coelho himself.
The party's general secretary took up a number of themes in the party program, which includes support for the November 28, 1975 proclamation of independence by Fretilin, which formed the RDTL, the East Timor Democratic Republic. He also backed the restoration of the national anthem, flag and constitution of the old Republic.
Although a number of other parties also support this demand, only the PST is calling for the restoration of the 1975 constitution with amendments to adopt all international human rights conventions, a section on workers' rights and the principle of equal opportunities for women and men.
"We must defend our politics in the transition period to total independence. The Constituent Assembly will decide if it is correct to restore the true [RDTL] proclamation", Coelho told the crowd.
He also emphasised that the party would continue its struggle against exploitation by capitalism and imperialism and implement policies to promote and protect the local economy — particularly small peasant farms — and protect workers and small business from foreign investors.
Speaking to Green Left Weekly after the rally, Coelho was highly critical of the country's media outlets, saying they had not been independent and had already begun red-baiting the PST.
His comments seemed to be affirmed by the media's attitude to the party's rally. Although all the major television, radio and print media were present at the rally, with the exception of the Dili daily Suara Timor Lorosae, they all chose to ignore the event.
In contrast, other rallies such as those of the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT), the Democratic Party (PD) and the Social Democratic Party (PSD) have had favorable and almost daily coverage in both of Dili's two daily newspapers.
On August 13, for example, Suara Timor Lorosae "reported" that "thousands" of UDT members mobilised in Dili in a "mammoth" campaign. I was present at the rally and at best it attracted around 1,000 people and was a very tame and lacklustre event.
The UDT, the PD and the PSD were all able to run a number of full page advertisements (at US$500 each) in the daily newspapers and were given ample space to voice their conservative and sometimes reactionary views.
Aside from the high degree of organisation and militancy, one of the distinguishing features of the PST's rally was the huge proportion of people wearing white T-shirts with the PST flag on the chest and the party's five central campaign platforms written on the back — they were the 3,300 party members who had registered to attend the rally.
Many political parties — particularly Fretilin — have toured well-known and well-paid singers around the country to attract crowds and bolster numbers.
Not lacking in funds, these parties have also resorted to renting empty trucks which cruise around Dili filling up with unemployed people from street corners who are given flags and dropped off at the rallying point to enjoy the food, drink and entertainment — while posing as committed party supporters.
While the PST mobilisation did attract a significant number of curious spectators, there was minimal entertainment and no refreshments for those who had travelled for hours under the hot sun packed in trucks of 65 people or more.
Coelho had told me several days earlier that this would be a "test" of people's interest in the PST's politics: when the serious political speeches began, he wondered, would people leave or stay and listen? No-one left.
With the exception of two of the rallies organised by Fretilin, this was easily one of the largest mobilisations of the election campaign. It confirmed what some observers have grudgingly admitted: the PST is attracting significant support despite limited resources and is running a well organised and effective campaign to educate the people about the party's program and policies.