Timor Leste in the Grip of Australian imperialism

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“Therefore I say that it is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” Henry John Temple.

A leading British politician at the height of the British Empire, Temple made this very succinct statement of imperialist foreign policy in 1848. As Minister for Foreign Affairs, he applied this philosophy often in his ruthless pursuit of global supremacy. In fact he was the originator of “gunboat diplomacy” against countries who got in the way.

It is a long-held socialist principle that you never, ever, side with your “own” capitalists in a dispute over territory or trade. In fact, the fragmentation of the global socialist movement is in no small part the result of a failure of sections of the movement to uphold this principle at times of capitalist crisis.

Violence follows independence vote. Going back 10 years, Australia was in uproar over Timor Leste (East Timor). On August 30, 1999, the country had voted on a referendum that would mean independence after 24 years of occupation by Indonesia. On September 4, the result was announced: 78.5% were for the split. Almost immediately, State terror was unleashed on the population. Militias, police, and the Indonesian army carried out murders, rapes, looting and the burning of homes.

Prime Minister Howard responded by sending his own gunboats to the international boundary, in a clear warning to the Indonesian military. He had cajoled and bullied the weak Indonesian President, Habibie, into holding the referendum. Under enormous international pressure, Habibie agreed to a “peacekeeping” force under Australian command. Just 20 days after the vote, an international fleet dropped anchor in Dili harbour. Indonesia’s rule was effectively ended by this invasion. Australia had its prize: a permanent foothold in Asia and effective control of the Timor Gap oilfields and the strategic Timor Sea shipping lanes.

At the time, in the face of the horrific scenes from Timor Leste, most socialists in Australia actively called for Howard to send in the troops. The Freedom Socialist Party, almost uniquely, held out against the tide of intervention. We called for workers’ militias to be sent to Timor Leste, just as earlier generations had sent brigades to aid Spanish revolutionaries in very similar circumstances. We called for all troops — Australian and Indonesian — to leave Timor Leste’s territory. We considered that independence under the gun of imperialism would mean that the people of Timor Leste were being offered a change of oppressors, nothing more.

Ten years later, history has confirmed that position.

Oil and occupation. The Portuguese occupiers of Timor Leste were finalising drilling concessions when the Portuguese Revolution put an end to their colonial aspirations. Australia lobbied the U.S. government to annul the agreements after the Indonesian invasion of 1975. It had been negotiating with Indonesia over favourable sea boundaries, but the “Timor Gap” was a problem, because the United Nations recognised Portugal’s “sovereignty” over the seabed adjacent to Timor Leste. Removal of this obstacle was a key reason for Australia’s whispered support for the annexation of East Timor in 1975. In fact, control of the oil was probably one of the key goals of the invasion itself.

In 1989, Australia and Indonesia signed a treaty carving up the seabed off Timor Leste. Independence in 1999 meant that the treaty was no longer in force. Nevertheless, Canberra did not give up its grip on the resource-rich seabed. The haste with which it organised a major international force to “protect” Timor Leste was simply a rush to grab the oil and gas for good.

After heated negotiations with Timor Leste’s leadership, there was a stand-off. Under the UN Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), countries can claim an exclusive economic zone 200 nautical miles (370 km) off their coastline. Where claims overlap, the law is clear: the boundary is halfway between. When Timor Leste moved to issue proceedings in the relevant international tribunal, Australia withdrew from its jurisdiction. There the matter rested until, desperate to get some revenue from the Timor Sea reserves, the government of Timor Leste agreed to defer its claim for 50 years. That was in return for 50% of the revenue for its own resources!

Australia is illegally occupying a huge area of Timor Leste and stealing its oil and gas. It’s classic colonialism, supported by both major parties, and makes a complete mockery of independence. Australia can trickle-feed cash at just the right rate to keep the economy completely dependent on Canberra. There is not even any local employment from the four proposed developments.

Maintaining instability. In March this year, former defence minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, speaking from Dili, the capital of Timor Leste, said: “A stable and secure East Timor is crucial to Australia’s own long-term security, so we will be here as long as is necessary.” Fitzgibbon was speaking about Australian troops and Australian interests. The welfare and sovereignty of the East Timorese is another matter.
The 1999 mass destruction led to chronic social instability, poverty and starvation in some areas. It is easy to manipulate people in these circumstances. A split in the military, led by Australian-trained officer Alfredo Reinado, was quickly followed by street fighting, arson and attacks against members of Fretilin, the former resistance movement that was then the government. More troops were sent, but failed to stop the attacks. Then a campaign to overthrow Fretilin Prime Minister Mari Alkitiri began, with the open and enthusiastic support of the Australian Prime Minister. Alkitiri was overthrown. Reinado, the leader of the mutiny, was able to set up camp in the mountains outside Dili, guarded by Australian forces.

In 2008, Reinado was present when East Timorese President Jose Ramos Horta was shot in an attempted assassination. At the same time, an attempt was made to kidnap Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao. The leader of that attack was another Australian-trained soldier, Gastão Salsinha. Given the ties between both men and the Australian military, it seems incredible that there was no intelligence concerning raids on the houses of the country’s two leading politicians.

There is no direct evidence of Australian involvement in the 2008 attacks. But for more than 30 years, Australia’s main interest in the area has been to secure the oil and gas reserves. A compliant government would be much more likely to serve that interest. The removal of Ramos Horta and Gusmao, long-time symbols of the resistance to Indonesia, would not have hurt Australian interests in the slightest.

Australia now has more than 1,100 troops in Timor Leste. The largest oil reserves are sequestered behind Australia’s self-defined border. Four decades of strategic planning have come to fruition.

If the next generation of East Timorese is still living in grinding poverty, courtesy of Australian capitalism, those who supported the troops in 1999 will have to bear some of the responsibility. An occupying power is still an occupying power, no matter how much support it has at home.

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