East Timor: Struggle for independance

The recent announcement by Indonesia’s president, BJ Habibie, that the people of strife-torn East Timor could "have their freedom" caused a stir amongst the world’s political commentators. What were the motives? Was it genuine or, as many speculate, ’designed to fail’?

In 1974, it was revolution in Lisbon that brought to an end 400 years of Portuguese rule in East Timor. The May revolution in Indonesia last year gave the Maubere (East Timorese) people hope of a new beginning.

In 1975, nine days after the setting up of a Fretilin/UDT independent government in Dili, (the capital of East Timor) the Indonesian dictator Suharto had cut short their days of freedom, ordering an invasion and imposing a new even bloodier form of colonial oppression.

For 24 years the national aspirations of the people of this former Portuguese colony have been crushed by the most horrific forms of state terror. The overthrow last May of Suharto, by a mass movement unleashed the biggest and boldest demonstrations ever seen in East Timor. Tens of thousands of demonstrators demanded the total withdrawal of the occupying force, the release of all resistance fighters held in Indonesian jails and, not least, the re-establishment of their independence.

Concessions had to be made and quickly but Suharto’s successor, Habibie, limited himself initially to one demonstrative withdrawal of troops (while many more poured in) and an offer of autonomy within the jurisdiction of Jakarta. Now, against the background of increasing tension and violence, he has suddenly declared that, if autonomy is not accepted, full independence, without a referendum, could be granted by July of next year. It would be for the new parliament due to be elected this June to decide.

Maintaining direct rule in East Timor is becoming too costly – in financial terms and in terms of local and international ’public opinion’. Government spending accounts for half of East Timor’s $113 million annual gross domestic product.

In the context of unrelieved economic crisis, Indonesian government ministers and advisers are also concerned about the image the country maintains amongst potential lenders and investors.

Under the crisis-ridden government of BJ Habibie, the commander of the armed forces, Wiranto, has sanctioned the recruitment of civilians to ’assist’ the army and police troops in confronting ’disorder’. Armed with government-issue guns or simply sharpened bamboo staves or knives, they can turn a peaceful demonstration into a bloodbath.

In East Timor in the past few weeks, according to the Far Eastern Economic Review: "The Indonesian army has supplied hundreds of weapons… to previously unarmed loyalists in eight of East Timor’s 13 districts". Maubere people living in the countryside have been terrorised.

On 30 January The Guardian carried harrowing accounts from John Aglionby – the only British reporter in Dili at the time of Habibie’s announcement – of tens of thousands of refugees massing on lawns and playing fields in the main towns and cities, and seeking sanctuary in churches, to escape the savagery of Jakarta’s soldiers and their auxiliaries.

Within East Timor there are undoubtedly many integrationists who prefer to stay within the Indonesian state or even oppose any form of autonomy from Jakarta. They understandably fear reprisals from a new regime made up of ex-guerrilla fighters and relatives of those murdered by Indonesian troops. Among them will be people who have come to East Timor to make money or to make a career in the apparatus used to hold the local population in subjugation. There will be many indigenous people who are known to have collaborated with the Suharto regime.

A referendum today would undoubtedly show a majority for independence. It is probably part of Habibie’s calculations that a referendum on autonomy for East Timor as part of an Indonesian state would be rejected. Now that he has gone to the opposite extreme and offered independence without a referendum; some observers and activists see it as a trick.

The last time that colonial rulers withdrew there was a period of civil war and many fear a repeat of history and another period of chaos and bloodshed. Some commentators have presumed that Habibie and co are banking on fear of such a development ëpersuadingí people to accept autonomy or even a reassertion of military rule.

More likely, however, is that Indonesian capitalism can no longer hold the line against a people set on independence without enormous cost. All efforts now seem bent on coming to an agreement with the imprisoned leader of the liberation fighters, Xanana Gusmao.

Previously intransigent against exchanging his freedom for mere autonomy, Gusmao has now been released from Cipinang prison into a form of ’house arrest’. "I have been given the task of uniting the people of East Timor," he declared on leaving the gaol he has occupied since 1992.

Gusmao has publicly let it be known on a number of occasions that he thinks the East Timorese people would need at least five or ten years before even a referendum on independence should be held. It is doubtful whether the Timorese people will wait that long.

But any deal which leaves the exploitation of oil and other resources in the hands of the big companies, and does not put them under state ownership and the control of the working people, will not solve the appalling problems of a population starved of the basic necessities and of elementary welfare and education provision.

The movement to the right of the recognised leaders of the armed resistance is one factor in explaining Habibieís change of heart. Another will have been the recent reversal of the policy of the Australian government towards East Timor, involved as it is in contracts for the exploitation by Australian magnates of a possible $19 billion worth of oil in the Timor Gap. It has seen the writing on the wall – the possibility of a government coming to power in East Timor that tears up the agreements with Jakarta.

On 12 January, Australian foreign affairs minister Downer, announced that, after decades of opposition to independence for the persecuted nation of East Timor, it was now in favour. Other trading powers will now also be banking on doing a deal with a safe market-oriented government based in Dili.

Sections of Australian business are already looking for a partnership with an aspiring East Timorese ruling elite.

The CNRT, headed by Gusmao, made it clear in a statement last July that the commercial interests of the Timor Gap oil contractors "will not be adversely affected by East Timorese self-determination". Gusmao has received a number of important figures as ’guests’ in his Cipinang prison cell including an executive of the BHP oil company – Australia’s largest – and at least three US senators!

Some have argued that socialists in Indonesiae are too weak at present and should ally themselves with figures like Megawati Sukarnopoutri to achieve true democracy. She, along with other mass leaders like Gus Dur, has an intransigent position over East Timor. Ruling out full independence even as an option, saying it would lead to war and feuding amongst the East Timorese, she is denying a basic democratic right for oppressed nations to determine their own futures.

In this, she probably reflects the views of the ex-generals who have joined her party, along with a whole swathe of ambitious business people. She and they will fear the unravelling of Indonesia – for decades a unitary state despite sprawling across over 13,000 islands.

Ethnic minorities and whole nations like that of Aceh or Irian Jaya hold huge grievances against the brutal treatment still being handed out to them by Jakarta. A mood for separation as opposed to simple autonomy in these areas could well develop in the future, especially as the economy and society of Indonesia struggle to avoid total collapse.

If Megawati Sukarnopoutri fails to recognise this well before June’s elections this year, she could well lose support amongst large layers, especially of youth, who struggled so heroically in the democracy movement of a year ago.

The struggle of the Maubere people for genuine freedom needs to be linked to ending the capitalist domination of the economy and society in East Timor and in Indonesia itself and to a struggle for an independent socialist East Timor in a wider federation of socialist states.

Conscious of the attraction of such ideas, the Jakarta regime is bent on organising a safe transition to a new government in East Timor that will leave Indonesian assets and contracts intact.

Socialists must fight for a fully representative elected assembly and for the nationalisation of all foreign-owned assets and sea-based mineral rights etc.

Socialists must also be to the fore in fighting for the freeing of all political prisoners. Arguments made about the unviability of an independent East Timor and about the impossibility of immediate self-government can be answered. The experience of 1974-5 in East Timor itself, as well as that in 1917 in Russia after the victorious October revolution, shows that the enthusiasm of a newly liberated people can work near miracles of re-organisation and administration, especially if it is the ordinary working and poor people of town and country who are making the decisions at every level.

They would need to reconstruct the economy on the basis of state ownership and a plan democratically controlled by elected representatives of working people. With an appeal to workers in other East Asian countries to follow suit – to throw off all traces of capitalist oppression along with imperialism – a socialist victory in East Timor could set off a chain of events that would change the course of history in the region and internationally.

The East Timorese movement

The Far Eastern Economic Review (11 February 1999) talks of the ’Marxist rhetoric’ of the liberation leaders in the 1970s which "alarmed regional and Western governments… South-East Asia, most countries decided, didn’t need a little Cuba in its midst". It says the Fretilin leaders have "traded Marx for market economics".

Xanana Gusmao, the imprisoned leader of the armed struggle wing in Fretilin has already announced that he is willing for his followers to lay down their arms. Since the "take your freedom" announcement of Habibie there has been a flurry of discussions organised by the United Nations authorities along with the Portuguese government involving the National Council for Timorese Resistance (CNRT), which now includes many of the former guerrilla fighters, and other East Timorese groups. Socialists in the country around the TSP (or AST) and other left organisations have held demonstrations in Dili, the capital, to celebrate the announcement of the Indonesian government. The 23-year struggle, they maintained, had not been either for autonomy or a referendum but precisely for independence.

They also aimed to calm the situation by reassuring non-Timorese that their "safety would be guaranteed by pro-independence groups as long as they did not allow themselves to be used by other forces". Unfortunately, elements around Xanana’s CNRT actively opposed the march and rally, handing out leaflets saying there was no point any more in holding demonstrations!

John Pilger’s documentary HABIBIE’S SURPRISE announcement came on 27 January. The evening before, Britain’s ITV carried an updated version of John Pilger’s documentary on East Timor.

It is a damning indictment not only of the Suharto regime but of all the major imperialist powers’ collusion with this hateful dictator. US President Ford’s visit to Jakarta’s was just days before the massive invasion by Indonesian troops of East Timor in 1975, known as ’the Big Wink’.

A CIA officer confirmed that this gave the green light. Pilger makes clear that what ensued – the slaughter in a few years of over 200,000 people: one-third of the country’s population – can only be called genocide.

"I have lost my two oldest brothers, my brother-in-law and three sons," one man tells the camera, filming secretly.

East Timor Conspiracy exposes that in the past there was total collaboration with Suharto not only by the Ford regime in the US (including that supposed ’dove of peace’, Henry Kissinger), and all of its successors, but of the ’left’ Labour Government of Gough Whitlam in Australia. Nobody would openly approve the genocide in East Timor but no major power had so much as tried to stop it.

Pilger’s no-holds-barred documentary shows David Owen, Foreign Secretary in an ’Old Labour’ government, talking unashamedly of the sale in 1978 of British Hawk jets to Indonesia. If it was good for British capitalism, they had no qualms about doing deals with Suharto – the general who had established his dictatorship in 1965-66 by butchering over a million people in a crusade against ’communism’!

John Pilger also exposes the vegetarian Tory former defence minister Alan Clark, who ’curiously’ could not explain why he thought nothing of selling billions of pounds worth of people-killing military hardware that had caused such mayhem and human suffering.

But Pilger’s latest interviews also confirm that little has changed with ’New Labour’. Under Robin Cook’s now notorious "ethical foreign policy", there were no fewer than 64 licences granted for the export of arms to the Indonesian government. Confronting the current defence spokesman, Derek Fatchet, with these statistics from a report by Amnesty International, Pilger reduced him to repeating an obviously prepared but meaningless reply that a government report was on its way which used different criteria.

The film also carries devastating footage of the army massacre at Santa Cruz in November 1991, taken by journalists who risked their lives to tell the world about it. Recently, British TV personality Mark Thomas, captured on film Indonesian generals admitting that torture was a routine ëpolicingí method in Indonesia and justifying the killings of unarmed civilians in East Timor.

No doubt can remain as to the nature of the regime now overthrown in Indonesia, but the barbaric methods of the military are by no means a thing of the past.


EIGHTEEN-YEAR-old Socialist Party member, Clare James, gave her view on the documentary:

"IT WAS horrifying to see real life normal people getting shot… and the politicians questioned by Pilger over supplying the weapons used to shoot them denied doing anything wrong by sending the stuff!

"It was good how John Pilger got it out of them – exposed how New Labour are the same as any Tory or past government. The sheer arrogance – they don’t even try and cover it up.

"Blair was quick enough to get troops to Iraq but East Timor has had ten UN sanctioning resolutions and nothing has been done. They pick and choose. "It’s what we’ve said all along – this is not the nice humane, ’fluffy’ government they’d have us believe. They’re hypocrites.

AN EAST Timorese student in Oxford commented on Habibie’s ’offer’: "WE ARE happy of course, relieved but cautious. We want to achieve not only independence but to develop our country for the future. We are not totally confident. Habibie and the foreign minister – Ali Alatas – can say ’red’ today and ’green’ tomorrow. We will have to see.

"It was definitely a turn-around on the part of Australia. That country’s government was the first to officially recognise Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor.

"We want to see not only Xanana (Gusmao) released and pardoned but all political prisoners in Indonesia. The dialogue goes on, but so does the struggle!"

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February 1999