In 1999 John Howard sent Australian troops to East Timor, allegedly to protect the masses from the murderous Indonesian-backed militia. This invasion was also supported by the Labor Opposition, the ACTU, the mass media and even leftwing groups like the DSP.
Almost alone, the Socialist Party pointed out that the motivations of the Australian government were imperialistic and not altruistic. Canberra feared that the one-sided civil war could lead to refugee flows into Australia and undermining profit possibilities for capital. Howard took advantage of Indonesia’s international isolation on the issue to send troops, stabilise the situation, and then open the economy for Australian business interests. The needs of the desperately poor East Timorese masses were not a factor in their calculations.
Five years on our position has, unfortunately, been proved to be correct. East Timor is demanding that the maritime and seabed borders be set half way between the two countries. Australia is using obscure geographical arguments that the border should take into account its continental shelf which stretches to within 40 km of East Timor.
Australia’s grabbing of the rich oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea between the two countries has been described as "daylight robbery". A fair border would lead to a tripling of East Timor’s income from oil and gas.
Australia steals $1.4 million a day from oil and gas fields under dispute, more than making up for the cost to Australia of the 1999 intervention. A good deal for Australian capitalism all round.
In the meantime the East Timor masses are mired in poverty. Oxfam reported last month that 41% of the population are below the poverty line, and literacy is less than 50%. One in 10 children born this year will die before reaching the age of 5. As one Oxfam official said: "Although Australia has been a generous donor to East Timor, the Australian Government is reaping over US$1 (A$1.4) million a day from oil and gas in a disputed area of the Timor Sea that is twice as close to East Timor as it is to Australia. The vast oil and gas reserves of the Timor Sea provide East Timor with a window of opportunity for providing for its people and future generations." This ’window of opportunity’ missed one 12 year old East Timorese girl who choked to death when hundreds of 20 to 30-centimetre roundworms clogged her oesophagus. The country is currently experiencing a "spectre of worm infestations", according to the Melbourne Age.
The arrogant, neo-colonial attitude of Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer should be an antidote to any naive people who still think Australia is in East Timor for the benefit of the people. The Financial Review reported Downer as criticising the East Timor government for opposing Australia’s oil/gas grab: "Their tactic of launching ’fusilladive’ (all guns blazing) and extremely aggressive abuse against Australia is sorely misjudged. Charm and flattery have more of an impact on me than fusilladive abuse. Whenever I am abused that’s it, I don’t like it….They spend a lot of time running an emotive argument that we’re richer than them and because we’re richer we should give them more territory…This is not a principle that could ever be applied in international law…"
Unfortunately Downer is exaggerating the East Timorese government’s level of mobilisation against the Howard Government. One section of their goverment, around President Xanana Gusmao, is turning towards Indonesia – despite their bloody history in East Timor – seeking a powerful ally to help pressurise Australia. The other section around Prime Minister Mari Alkartiri and Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta are still pleading with Canberra, hitting them with a feather duster. Ramos-Horta told the Financial Review: "Already some people are engaged in a hunger strike. I feel uneasy about our posturing that can inflame our youth, in particular against Australia. We leaders have to be careful about what we say in public. In private yes, we can be firm but polite, but without going to the point of really insulting the other side. I feel some unease about some comments of our own President about Australia."
With leaders like this, the East Timorese masses will never get justice from Australia. What is needed is a mass campaign of solidarity in Australia, Indonesia, Portugal and beyond to force the Howard government to back off. Demonstrations, industrial action, mobilising public support etc is the only language they listen to – certainly not Ramos-Horta’s ’polite’ protestations.
The leadership of the East Timorese masses in a sense sub-contracted their liberation out to the Australian government back in 1999. Now Canberra is getting its payback – $1.4 million a day from the Timor Sea. The only real allies the workers and peasents of East Timor have are the international working class, who have no desire to exploit them. It is time for action to stop the daylight robbery now!