After a century of anti-colonial resistance, will East Timor be free at last?

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In a referendum scheduled for the last quarter of 1999, the East Timorese people will be asked: “Do you accept the proposed special autonomy for East Timor within the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia?” or “Do you reject the proposed special autonomy for East Timor, leading to East Timor’s separation from Indonesia?” Peter Murray examines the promises and the pitfalls.

If the majority of the population rejects autonomy, Indonesia must, under the May 5 agreement signed with Portugal and the United Nations (UN), vacate East Timor by 1 January 2000.

The people of East Timor have plenty of reasons to want to be free of rule from Jakarta. Since the invasion in 1975, over 200,000 East Timorese — or one in every three — have died as a result of the occupation. Several hundred Timorese have been killed since January, and more than 40,000 have fled their villages. They are now internally displaced persons — refugees in their own country.

The poll is being run by UN officials under the “Act of Free Choice” provisions of its Charter. Polls conducted under these provisions by the U.S. in Hawaii in 1959 and by Jakarta in Irian Jaya in 1969 were rigged, but the UN did nothing to upset its imperialist masters. So having the UN run the vote is a dangerous position. But if the leaders of the liberation struggle have decided to take this step, that is their right, even if it is a mistake. It’s a question of sovereignty. However, working people must be totally opposed to UN forces, or any other imperialist troops, being stationed in East Timor after the ballot. Even more worrying than the role of the UN is the agreement that the obviously partisan Indonesian army (ABRI), will be in charge of security during the referendum!

No freedom under Jakarta. “Special autonomy” would be an extremely limited form of self-rule. There would be a local assembly responsible for regional issues, such as education, housing and criminal law. However, the laws of Indonesia would remain in force, Indonesian landlords would retain their holdings, and ABRI would continue to occupy its bases. The local authorities would, however, be able to control cultural activities without interference. It is obvious that without economic control, such autonomy would be a very hollow gain for people of East Timor.

On the island itself, the so-called pro-integrationist militias — armed, trained and funded by ABRI and wealthy landlords — are attempting to terrorise the population into voting for unity with Indonesia. It is not possible, at the time of writing, to predict if this will succeed. Not only the residents, but the tens of thousands of internal and external Timorese exiles are entitled to vote at polling stations across Indonesia, Portugal and Australia. These people will overwhelmingly vote against autonomy and may decide the outcome.

If the vote is for integration with Indonesia, the civil war will continue, because the poll will be rightly seen as having been defeated by Indonesian-sponsored terrorism. If it is for secession, then the danger for the new country is the possibility of Nicaraguan-style contra forces continuing the campaign of murder and destruction.

In any case, a secession vote is only a small step. The hurdles in the path of an independent government in Dili are many.

Economic resources. One problem is the question of economic viability. A country of only 19,000 square kilometres and a population of 600,000 is not large. Its current annual budget, provided by Jakarta, is about $US150 million. Still, many Pacific states are of a similar size, or smaller.

Australia’s government has promised $100 million annually towards reconstruction. Big business sees this as a down payment on future investment in Timor. Any Australian aid must come with no strings attached. The East Timorese have not struggled for a century against colonialism in order to become an Australian outpost. It is important to demand that Australia’s illegal Timor Sea Oil contracts be vacated and new agreements negotiated. In any case, no country can survive on charity.

A locally controlled economy is possible. East Timor is one of the few areas in the world to commercially produced sandalwood, a valuable timber used to make oil for perfumes and ornamental furniture. Its Arabica coffee plantations are of a high standard and sell at a premium on world markets. There are untapped mineral deposits, and a huge supply of top quality marble in the mountains. Tourism has a large potential, particularly from Australia. The Timor Sea oil and gas fields are worth an estimated $US11 billion over their lifetime.

An anti-imperialist country? It is difficult to predict what a free East Timor might become. Provided that the country is able to resist the depredations of Australian business interests and the inevitable spoiling tactics from Indonesia, it has the potential to provide a sustainable economy.

Xanana Gusmao, in a message to graduating students at Dili university, has this to say about future economy:

“With a policy to serve our people, and not to serve individual consumer interests, we will stimulate animal husbandry and fisheries, in order to have easy access to the markets. We will implement small industries by paying attention to our natural resources: manganese, marble, natural gas, and oil among others. We oppose the building of big, noisy and polluted cities, but will establish small gardens all over East Timor. We oppose the accumulation of power in one city, but will spread small effective centres all over East Timor for study, for planning and the realisation of our dreams.”

Fretilin came to power with wide support in 1975 after a three-way civil war between forces fighting for complete independence, those wanting integration into Indonesia and those advocating continued Portuguese control. Fretilin understood the aspirations of the people. It declared East Timor independent, instituted social and agrarian reform and introduced mass education programs. Suharto viewed this with alarm. In December 1975, Indonesian troops invaded East Timor.

Fretilin officially adopted Maoism after invasion. Although Maoism’s central doctrine of a peasant-based “socialist” economy in one country ignores the reality of the global imperialist market, it does mark Fretilin, and its leader, Gusmao, as potentially hostile to an imperialist takeover.

Of course, like so many other anti-imperialist forces, Fretilin may be forced to go further than it intended in centralising economic control. Robbie Sumapow, a Chinese-Indonesian tycoon who financed the 1975 invasion, creams off 30 million dollars from the Timorese economy through his coffee, sandalwood and marble quarrying businesses. Expropriating him and other parasitical Suharto cronies would go a long way toward filling the financial void left by Jakarta, and may prove an irresistible source of wealth for a new country struggling to meet the basic demands of its people.

That would be the worst nightmare of the U.S., Australian and Indonesian governments. It was the possibility of another Cuba in the middle of Indonesia, and 200 km from Australia, that led to the invasion in 1975, with U.S. backing and Australian collusion. Last year, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer admitted that Australia’s policy concerning the territory had to be seen in the context of the Cold War. Sure, 250,000 people have died since 1975, but hey, Suharto was fighting communism. For more than half of the period since then, the Australian Labor Party was in power, and it, alone among the world’s governments, gave formal recognition to the annexation.

For working people of the region, a country that thumbed its nose at imperialism would be both an inspiration and a challenge. If the people of East Timor do begin building a road to socialism, then it is our duty to defend them by opposing intervention by Australian forces.

Leaving the cocoon. In one of his letters from exile, Xanana relates the sad news that Indonesia’s destruction of the environment has meant that there are no more butterflies or birds on Timor. This is just one more symbol of years of vicious oppression.

Unless Indonesia reneges on the May 5 deal, and terrorism spoils the votes, the East Timorese people will have their own country. Marxists have always supported anti-colonial struggles and the right of nations to self-determination, without pre-conditions. However, it is almost always the case that we have opposed the physical separation of one state from another. National borders are fences which divide working people, and too often the drawing of new boundaries means an upsurge in reactionary national chauvinism. It is also the case that, as one oppressive power is shown the front door, another is sneaking in the back gate. No nation can achieve prosperity under capitalism, which, in its current decaying phase, exists only to provide super profits for a dwindling number of giant corporations and obscenely wealthy plutocrats. Ideally, the future for East Timor lies in a socialist federation of Southeast Asia, voluntarily coming together with other national groupings to fulfill the destiny of the culturally diverse peoples of the Malay Archipelago.

But in the final analysis and the current period, separation may be the only way for a nation to assert its identity and to set about achieving its goals. In this case, despite the obvious ambitions of the Australian capitalist class, the way forward for the East Timorese is to separate from Indonesia. The aspirations of the people cannot be fulfilled under capitalism. But under Jakarta’s iron fist, their nation faces annihilation.

The people call East Timor “Timor Lorosae.” It’s a symbol of their hope for the future and their love for their land. Viva Timor Lorosae Libre! May the butterflies soon return!

  • No to Jakarta’s fake autonomy!
  • For an independent, separate Timor Lorosae.
  • Disarm the pro-integrationist militias!
  • No UN troops — imperialism out.
  • Australian hands off Timor’s economy — hand back to the Timor Sea oil fields.
  • For billions in reparations from Jakarta for its bloody, genocidal war.
  • Forward to a socialist federation of Southeast Asia!

East Timor is a nation. In common with many other communities in Indonesia, the East Timorese fit the Marxist definition of a nation: a historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture. Though deliberately suppressed by both the Portuguese and the Indonesians, their language, Tetun, is widely spoken. They have occupied their territory for many centuries. Their economy, though severely distorted by colonialism, is still based on small, individual farming plots, similar to those in many parts of the Asia-Pacific region.

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