East Timor: Australia neo-colonial intervention in Timor

Only chronic poverty and conflict for resources-rich “new nation”

Australia sent troops to East Timor in May following another armed deployment in the Solomon Islands. Despite media claims, Prime Minister John Howard is not conducting a ‘humanitarian’ mission. Howard represents Australian big business, which wants to exploit natural resources in the region and enhance its geo-strategic interests, in competition with rivals, like Portugal. The lives of impoverished workers and youth across the vast region are just so much small change in the cynical schemes of Australian capitalism and other powers.

The trigger to recent turmoil in East Timor (now renamed Timor-Leste) was the dismissal of 600 striking soldiers from the Timorese armed forces in March. This led to clashes with forces loyal to the Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri. On 12 May, Howard sent warships to the Timor Sea and later, on ‘invitation’ from East Timor’s government, troops to the island. A new UN force will be deployed early next year, in advance of the May 2007 presidential and legislative elections.

How could one of the world’s newest countries, created with much international fanfare, have so quickly hit crisis?

The 1974 Portuguese revolution, which overthrew the right-wing junta in Lisbon, ended long years of colonial rule over East Timor. This raised hopes of real independence amongst Timor’s people. But the dream was soon cruelly snuffed out. The right-wing Indonesian dictator, General Suharto, launched an invasion of the resources-rich island. Over 20 years of brutal Indonesian rule saw the catastrophic loss of 200,000 lives in Timor and the impoverishment of its people.

Australia and the US backed Suharto’s invasion. During the cold war, Suharto – the butcher of hundreds of thousands of Indonesian Communist Party members in the 1960s – was a key ally. East Timor was important for geo-strategic reasons and its huge oil and gas resources. Canberra governments, both Liberal and Labor, cajoled Indonesia into giving Australian big business preferential access, at the expense of the Timorese people.

The mass movement that overthrew Suharto’s brutal dictatorship in the late 1990s gave a huge boost to the national liberation struggle. However, having shifted to the right, the leaders of Fretelin – the political wing of the Timorese independence movement – appealed to outside imperialist powers to end Indonesian rule.

In 1999, Howard sent in troops as pro-Indonesian militias slaughtered the pro-independence Timorese and devastated much of the country. Howard was keen to block any attempts by other powers, particularly Portugal, to step in and gain favourable access to the Timor Sea’s natural resources. A 7,500-strong UN force (with Australian troops making up more than half) went to Timor in 2000.

East Timor formally won independence in May 2002. Australia bullied the new regime to win favourable trade deals giving it access to oil and gas resources. Australia gets $1m a day from oil and gas in the Timor Sea. Portuguese big business, like Delta (coffee company) and CGD bank, also exploit the former colony.

In 1999, the Socialist Party and Alternativa Socialista (CWI Australia and Portugal respectively) opposed imperialist intervention into East Timor. They called for democratically-controlled self-defence by workers and youth in Timor, and for a class appeal to workers in Indonesia, Australia and across the region to aid their struggle.

Opposing intervention was a minority view at the time, when Howard and the media whipped up a mood that ‘something must be done’ to stop the rampaging pro-Indonesian militias in Timor. The Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) in Australia, and the Left Bloc and Communist Party in Portugal, gave way to the propaganda and championed imperialist intervention. In May 2006, the DSP (now renamed Democratic Socialist Perspective) opposed Howard’s intervention into Timor. But what has changed since 1999?

East Timor is again wracked by violent conflict and remains the poorest country in South-East Asia. UN involvement has not bettered the lives of the less than one million Timorese. Around 40% of the population live below the poverty line and half have no access to safe drinking water. Under UN guidance, the new state was created with inbuilt divisions: many former guerrilla fighters were kept out of the new Timorese army and Suharto-era personnel dominated the new police force.

These facts, and the Iraq war, mean that the public mood in Australia is not the same as in 1999. Many workers and youth see through the lies and propaganda that preceded the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. Although many Australians reluctantly saw no alternative to sending troops in to Timor this May, many are also suspicious of Howard’s motives or oppose him on this issue.

UN forces were scaled down in May 2005, largely under US pressure, leaving a ‘small political mission’. But Australia and the US became worried about Timor’s negotiations with EU states and China over possible energy deals. For Canberra, Alkatiri is considered too close to Portugal and is a threat to Australian capitalism’s interests.

Exploiting recent clashes in Timor, Howard despatched a heavily armed force of 2,000 troops. But they failed to stop widespread violence by gangs of jobless youth linked to various factions. Over 100,000 Timorese are homeless. Howard’s main objective is to bolster the position of Australian capitalism, to see off rival imperialist powers, and to force ‘regime change’ in Dili.

“Dangerous Marxist”?

The Australian press, echoing the position of Howard’s government, denounced Alkatiri as a ‘dangerous Marxist’ who brought East Timor to disaster. The truth is that Alkatiri, like Xanana Gusmão, and other leaders of Fretelin, long ago ditched any left policies and embraced capitalism and the rule of the ‘international community’ (ie imperialist powers). The Murdoch-owned press wanted Alkatiri removed so a figure more amenable to Australian big business can be put in his place. During June, protests were allowed outside the government buildings in Dili demanding Alkatiri stepped down. Finally, the Prime Minister was forced to resign in late June and Jose Ramos-Horta became the ‘cabinet co-ordinator’ of an interim government.

This led to new turmoil. The removal of Alkatiri saw a fresh bout of mob violence in Dili by forces opposed to the fallen prime minister. In reply, thousands of pro-Alkatiri, Fretilin supporters gathered in Dili.

Gusmao, an ally of Ramos-Horta, and therefore favoured by Canberra, is expected to name a temporary government to rule until elections due next May. In the meantime, there are ongoing and intense power-struggles and negotiations between Alkatiri and Fretelin, on the one side, and Ramos-Horta and Gusmao, on the other side, over a new administration.

As the local parties and militias fight for influence and power in Timor, so do the major powers. The Australian government is busy courting the UN powers, in particular, Britain and the US, to allow Canberra the main say over a UN force in Timor. At the same time, Portugal pushes the EU to act in its interests in Timor.

The Australian media refer to the intervention into the Solomon Islands as an example to be copied in Timor. In 2003, Howard sent troops to the Solomon Islands, claiming the country was a ‘failing state’ (see Socialism Today No.77, September 2003). Australia imposed its Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), which means Australian forces hold the key sectors of the state, including running the defence forces, prisons and finances. A privatisation programme plunged islanders into greater poverty.

This year’s elections to the Solomon Islands parliament led to riots amid accusations that the new Prime Minister, Snyder Rini, rigged the polls. Howard sent in hundreds more troops to safeguard Australian capitalism’s interests and to quickly bundle out Snyder Rini. But reflecting the population’s anger at Australian meddling, the new prime minister put in Rini’s place accused Howard’s government of bullying.

As well as facing growing local opposition to Australian troops in East Timor and the Solomon Islands, Howard’s government is in danger of heading towards severe ‘imperial overstretch’. The regional power also has its eye on Fiji, Nauru, Vanuatu and other islands. It is meddling in Papua New Guinea (a former Australian colony), imposing an ‘enhanced co-operation programme’, involving policing, the economy, border controls and the courts. But getting drawn into vast, unstable and corrupt PNG could be disastrous.

Australian forces are also committed to the US-led occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. A few years ago, President Bush bluntly described Howard’s government as his ‘deputy sheriff’ in the Asia-Pacific. The US largely backs Australian imperialist policy. In return, the superpower expects to benefit from Australia’s access to resources in the region and to supply troops for US military adventures.

Limits of Australian imperialism

The limits of Australian imperialist power, however, are seen in its relations with Indonesia. Relations between the two countries were severely strained after Australia sent troops to Timor in 1999. But Canberra still has to deal carefully with the world’s fourth most populous country, an important, albeit weakened, regional player. Indonesia is also Australia’s eleventh largest export market.

The two countries are currently negotiating a ‘security treaty’. It is in the interests of Australian big business that multi-national and multi-ethnic Indonesia holds together, even if this means trampling on the rights of oppressed peoples. Howard’s government recently signalled that it opposes self-determination for West Papua. This area is rich in natural resources but its poverty rates are double the national average in Indonesia. Freeport goldmine in West Papua is 40% owned by Rio Tinto, a part Australian-owned company.

Violent conflict, social and economic disintegration, imperialist interventions, widespread poverty, joblessness, endemic corruption: all these deep-seated problems will wrack Asia-Pacific for as long as the region remains in the confines of the capitalist system. The countries of the region, including tiny nations, like Timor, can only develop as part of a socialist federation of the region, whereby resources are pooled together in a workers’ democratic planned economy.

Only a mass struggle uniting all workers, the poor and youth, to overthrow local elites and the profit system, and to expel imperialism, can find a way out of the deep crisis.

This is a slightly edited version of an article that appears in the latest issue of Socialism Today, monthly magazine of the Socialist Party (England and Wales).

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July 2006