Solidarity with the Timorese people
On May 24, East Timorese President Xanana Gusmao, Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri and the speaker of East Timor’s parliament Lu’olo sent a letter to the governments of Australia, Portugal, Malaysia and New Zealand as well as to the United Nations asking for assistance in the form of a military presence in order to respond to civil disorder in the East Timor capital Dili, and surrounding areas. The disorder had developed out of a dispute within the East Timorese armed forces
The Australian government, which had already made an offer to send a force, was particularly enthusiastic in agreeing to the request, eager to ensure stable governance of East Timor to facilitate its ongoing theft of East Timor’s oil and gas. The move will also be used to justify Australian imperialism’s interventionist foreign policy in the region, a strategy that involves the Australian military, police and financial advisors interfering in the running of a number of Australia’s small, poor neighbours in the interests of Australian business and at the expense of the people of those nations.
With Australian military officers stationed in East Timor, it is likely that Canberra had intelligence indicating that the divisions inside the armed forces were more serious than was being publicly admitted to.
The general East Timorese population and the full spectrum of political forces support the presence of the international troops in East Timor. This includes the progressive NGO sector as well as the Timorese Socialist Party (PST). “The presence of the international forces is important”, PST general secretary Avelino da Silva told Green Left Weekly. “Otherwise the people will be living in fear of being terrorised by armed gangs, not knowing who is a friend or who is an enemy.”
East Timor is governed by the political party Fretilin, led by its current president, Alkatiri, and personalities such as Gusmao and Jose Ramos Horta, all of whom also played preeminent roles in the struggle that successfully won independence in 1999. They have inherited a society traumatised as well as severely physically damaged as a result of more than two decades of Indonesian military occupation.
Timor has experienced almost no economic development for several centuries and is listed as the poorest country in Asia. Since formal independence, Timor has been robbed of access to much of its oil and gas resources, having been pressured into accepting a deal ceding a major portion of the wealth from that oil and gas to Australia, which has no right to it. Australia’s imperialist policies towards East Timor have not helped the nation’s development and have contributed to the current situation of crisis.
The political and economic strategy that the East Timorese leadership has pursued since independence has been modelled on a traditional capitalist parliamentary system. It has relied on developing foreign-trained professional bureaucracies, standing army and police, with minimum direct involvement of the people. The leadership has not relied upon the people — the major resource available — for political and economic development.
This strategy has proven inadequate to deal with recent conflict within the armed forces and the ensuing civil disorder. With high levels of frustration among the population at the slow progress made in social and economic development and no organised and mobilised population as a source of authority, the political elite must rely more and more on the authority they won as leaders of the liberation movement before 1999. Within the armed forces, this was already proving inadequate with the disaffected soldiers demanding the resignation of well-know former guerrilla leaders such as Taur Matur Ruak. As a result, the government has been forced to rely upon the Australian defence forces instead.
Since the early period of independence, and even during the national liberation struggle, there has been a strong tendency in the Timorese leadership to rely on the support of the governments of imperialist countries. This was unavoidable in September 1999 when the Indonesian army and militias were ravaging the country. However, even after stability was achieved, there was no perspective to promote self-organisation among the masses as the primary basis for further development. Such a perspective was articulated only by the PST and the progressive sections of the non-government organisations, which represented a minority current.
Among the political elite, the political figure who has been the most resistant to falling into reliance on the outside has been Alkatiri. He has, for example, resisted pressure to accept foreign loans and has diversified international aid, accepting medical aid from Cuba. However, in the current crisis, having no active and mobilised base among the people — although there is no doubt that Fretilin has been accepted so far as the legitimate ruling party by the majority of the people — and having been unable to resolve the crisis within the armed forces, even Alkatiri has been forced, no doubt reluctantly, to rely on outside support.
In an interview with SBS television on May 25, when asked whether he was prepared to take the lead in resolving the situation, Alkatiri asserted that he had already done so by initiating the request for foreign troops by bringing the proposal to Gusmao. In Alkatiri’s view, the disorder was provoked not simply by a struggle over soldiers’ grievances or for control of the army: he views the rebellious acts of at least some of the disaffected soldiers as a coup attempt.
East Timor is a poor country, grossly underdeveloped with a weak, under-resourced and completely new state apparatus and a small and weak capitalist class. In these conditions, without raising the political consciousness, organisation and mobilisation of the whole population as direct participants — the perspective advocated by the Timorese socialists and progressive campaign activists — a reliance on outside forces is likely to continue in one form or other.
In this situation, there is a special responsibility on the progressive and democratic sectors in Australia and all friends of the East Timorese people to work closely with the organisations of the East Timorese people to ensure that Australian government, commercial and other interests do not exploit this situation in a way that harms the interests of or violates the rights of the Timorese people or nation.
In Australia, organisations such as AidWatch have already been monitoring Australian economic aid to East Timor. A broader forum, drawing on the full solidarity and friendship movement in Australia to jointly campaign with East Timorese groups against unwanted Australian policies may be useful.
The Australian government, representing the Australian capitalist class, has long pursued its own imperialist interests over those of the East Timorese government and people, such as on the issue of oil and gas, and indeed in its support for the Indonesian occupation of East Timor between 1975 and 1999. These new developments can weaken the bargaining position of the East Timorese in any future dispute. Already Prime Minister John Howard is opportunistically using the crisis to politically attack the East Timorese leadership, hoping to weaken it, while not admitting the Australian government’s culpability in the crisis.
Within East Timor, such a crisis as this will also no doubt open up opportunities for intensified conflict between different elements of the East Timorese political elite, although this is not yet clear. In any case, such developments are for the East Timorese to handle. In cooperation with East Timorese democratic forces, we must expose any attempts by the Australian government to exploit or manipulate the situation.
In the longer term, only the development of a political movement fully mobilising the Timorese people as direct participants in its political and economic life will stop the current kind of scenario reoccurring.
As an important step towards resolving the immediate problems in East Timor, the Australian, US and British governments must provide the material and financial assistance that East Timor requires to provide all its people with adequate health, education and other social services and infrastructure. This should be acknowledged as a form of war reparations, for the years of complicity in blocking the East Timorese peoples’ right to self-determination during the 24 years of Indonesian military rule.
The Australian government must also immediately cease the theft of oil and gas that rightfully belongs to East Timor and repay the total amount stolen under the current deal as well as under arrangements between Australia and Indonesia during East Timor’s occupation.
These three governments should at the same time also seek to assist and provide resources for the creation of an international war crimes tribunal that can investigate and bring to account those responsible for human-rights abuses in East Timor during the Indonesian military occupation, including former US, British and Australian ministers and leaders involved in formulating policies that supported this illegal occupation.