INTERFET Wins Beachhead For Australian Imperialism: East Timorese Independence Already Under Threat

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After 24 years of brutal occupation by Indonesia, there was never any doubt that this year’s referendum on independence for the Maubere people of East Timor would succeed. Unfortunately, by the time the vote was held on August 30, 1999, there was no doubt that the Indonesian military had prepared a holocaust for the East Timorese. Months earlier, leaked Indonesian spy documents had mapped out the plan to depopulate East Timor and destroy its infrastructure. In a September 7 TV interview, John Howard admitted that the East Timor operation had been planned for months. But Australian forces massing around Darwin and Townsville were being mobilised not to prevent mayhem, but to take advantage of it.

In the “national interest.” The Asian economic crisis has severely weakened Jakarta’s ability to impose its will on the outer provinces. Australian policy makers saw the hiatus created by the departure of the dictator, Suharto, as an opportunity to gain a foothold in the Archipelago, and were not fussed about how this could be achieved. The Indonesian military leaders bear most of the responsibility for the havoc in East Timor. But Australian authorities are far from blameless. Australia and the UN waited until the territory was a near-empty ruin before pressuring Jakarta to accept “peacekeepers.” Only when it looked like the army might not be allowed in was the heat turned up on the Indonesian and other governments to permit the incursion.

“Humanitarian” colonisers. Almost universally, the Australian population, the troops themselves and the ordinary people of East Timor see INTERFET forces as a liberating army. Yet behind the emotional propaganda about “our men and women” spending Christmas leading the world in humanitarian operations is the cold hard fact of Australian imperialism. As Gerard Henderson, a rightwing columnist puts it, the result of the machinations in Jakarta, Canberra and New York is that East Timor is “a de facto Australian possession.”

Howard is attempting to do what his predecessors could not — seize complete control of the oilfields and gain control of the strategically vital passage between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Over 200,000 East Timorese have died as a result of Australia’s strategy since 1975. Seventy thousand are still missing after the recent brutality.

When INTERFET attempted to disarm Fretilin forces in September, it sent a clear message to those who want a truly independent Timor Lorosae: inside the velvet glove is an iron fist. Australian foreign policy has for decades concentrated on securing the Timor Sea oilfields. Corporate Australia now has this prize within reach, and will not voluntarily give it up.

Propaganda and populism. The speed and ferocity with which the Indonesian Army’s (TNI) death squads carried out their rampage was deeply shocking for the Australian population, which is used to thousands of kilometres of insulation from such atrocities. On top of this there has been widespread support for the East Timorese struggle — and equally broad opposition to the government policy of appeasing Jakarta. Huge demonstrations in capital cities were a testament to this. The key demand of these rallies for Australian intervention was understandable, but, as many cartoonists noted, it was deeply ironic that the loudest calls for sending in the army came from people who had cut their political teeth in opposing the Vietnam War a generation earlier.

The flaw in the demand is this: the East Timorese face the prospect of one colonial master being replaced by another. As Australia’s Indigenous nations can attest, that is only swapping a fast execution for the death of a thousand cuts. Knee-jerk responses to a crisis are no substitute for a long-term strategy. If, in ten years’ time, East Timor has been turned into another Bali, dominated by Australian business interests, the Maubere people will not thank the Australian working class for its role in backing Australian imperialism.

Uneasy truce. It’s true that in the aftermath of the independence vote, Xanana Gusmao, José Ramos Horta and other leaders of the National Council for Timorese Resistance (CNRT) called for international intervention. This was a second-best option, borne of desperation. For years, Falantil was refused the one thing that would have made Jakarta nervous: sufficient arms to defend itself and to inflict real casualties. This allowed the TNI and the so-called “militias” to kill and destroy with impunity.

But very soon after the INTERFET forces landed in Dili, tensions between CNRT and international forces began to appear. Not only has Australia’s Major-General Peter Cosgrove annoyed Falantil commanders by repeating the policy of disarmament, but Gusmao attacked aid organisations for failing to consult with CNRT. “We are not informed of their meetings, which are run in a clandestine way,” Gusmao said. “It is now clear there must be cooperation with the CNRT.”

Last November, Asiaweek magazine reported criticisms of the UN by Gusmao. He wants only a fraction of the planned 9,000 troops in order to avoid social problems. Says Gusmao: “I have said we need a small number of peacekeeping forces in the border area and in the Oecussi enclave [which is surrounded on three sides by West Timor]. Three thousand troops are enough. I have written to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan about this. We want the UN to save money from peacekeeping troops and spend it on reconstruction aid.”

Clearly, CNRT leaders are putting Sergio de Mello, the head of UNTAET (UN Transitional Authority in East Timor), on notice that they intend to rely on the huge mandate from the August referendum as leverage for a quick devolution of power to Dili. This is a positive development. Xanana is a national and international hero, and Ramos Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has almost as much respect, coupled with many influential international contacts. The UN and Australia are discovering that the East Timorese leadership is no pushover.

Independence begins at home! Calls for “Troops to Timor” are characteristic of the top leadership of the workers’ movement, which has always lined up with the bosses when the “national interest” (whose?) is at stake. However, cracks are appearing in the popular front. The left of the union movement, led by Martin Kingham and the leaders of the construction unions, has begun to form links to CNRT, following a falling out with CARE Australia.

On the initiative of the unions, a project to ship large prefab dormitories to Dili was begun, and a group of volunteer construction workers flew to East Timor to assemble them. When Kingham got to Dili, he found that not only had the building crew been left without proper shelter, they had no food, and had spent days living on beer supplies before some vegemite and sardines arrived! Then, as construction of the first building went on, it emerged that CARE Australia intended to pre-empt it for offices and housing for its employees. Disgusted, the building workers downed tools and Kingham sought talks with CNRT leaders.

This episode demonstrates the need for the workers’ movement to develop an independent policy on East Timor. There is no doubt that part of the affection shown to INTERFET troops is an appreciation of the solidarity shown by Australian working people. This solidarity, in the form of union-led rebuilding programs, humanitarian aid through the ACTU’s aid agency APHEDA, and similar initiatives must continue. But it must also include total opposition to Corporate Australia’s attempt to annex East Timor.

Howard claims that without his government’s policies, there would have been no referendum. Rubbish! The referendum was held because of decades of Timorese resistance and because the workers and students of Java, tired of the dictatorship, brought down Suharto. We have to follow their lead. The people of East Timor have suffered for too long. But the Australian Government and the UN have proved that they are no friends of the East Timorese. It falls to the workers of the world to help them finally lose the chains of colonialism, and we in Australia are on the front line.

UN/Australia hands off East Timor! Troops out now!

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