Back in 1999 the Australian government was under pressure from an electorate keen for ’something to be done’ for the East Timor masses who were facing brutality from Indonesian-backed militia after the masses had voted overwhelmingly for independence. Canberra used the instability in East Timor and the opportunity of a weak Jakarta government to intervene and capture the resources of the new country.
The new Fretilin government essentially sub-contracted their independence to the Australian ruling class and they have paid a price ever since. A series of uneven deals between Australia and the world’s newest state on access to oil and gas in the Timor Sea has meant Australia now earns $1 million a day from resources that, by standards used in any other part of the world, should be controlled by East Timor.
That’s $356 million a year in stolen profits, compared to aid to East Timor from Australia of $43 million for 2006/07. Not a bad result for Canberra. These are the brutal facts of neo-colonialism and imperialism.
The way for this plunder has been made easier by a United Nations operation in East Timor since independence. Much of the US$565 million it has spent in the country has gone on maintaining the conditions of life of the UN personnel – and causing inflation – rather than on improving the situation of the local population. The UN has also proved incapable of protecting Indonesian civilians during crises like the present one.
Poverty and political chaos
In the past seven years, the Fretilin government has had precious little resources to deal with the massive social and economic problems that exist. 95% of schools were destroyed by the Indonesians, yet six years into independence only 50% of students have textbooks and 25% of youth are illiterate.
The country is the poorest in Asia with over 50% unemployed. One in two people live without safe drinking water and three in five without sanitation facilities.
As is often the case in such circumstances, the weak East Timorese capitalists and political elite turn to corruption, having no confidence that they can develop society. They have also given up on bringing to justice those responsible for the massacres in 1999 and before. The Dili elite have criticised those in the West who have attacked Jakarta’s whitewash trials of suspected killers. Fretilin does not want to upset its big neighbour and neither does Australia.
A desperate population has no clear united, union, or socialist alternative and are therefore susceptible to division.
On the one side is Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. He was in the ex-Portuguese colony of Mozambique during the Indonesian occupation and the Lisbon government has condemned Canberra’s moves to remove him from office. He has stacked the party and state with his cronies and there are corruption allegations about his faction. In the last resort, he represents the interests of Portuguese capital who want their share of East Timor’s wealth.
On the other side is President Xanana Gusmao, who led the resistance fighters during occupation. This still gives him credibility amongst the masses, especially in the east of the country, who consider many in the west of East Timor to have been complicit in the Indonesian occupation. He has the backing of the Australian government.
The opportunist Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta was based in Sydney during the occupation and after being linked to Alkatiri is now firmly in Gusmao’s camp, especially after the foreign forces arrived in Dili.
Such is the chaos that on top of the Fretilin faction fight and the division between the two halves of the country there is now bloody tribal, cultural and even family feuding occurring. This is expressed through a form of ethnic cleansing in the suburbs of Dili and elsewhere.
Socialists must oppose imperialist intervention
The Australian-led force (2,000-odd troops, 500 police plus 200 New Zealand and 500 Malaysian troops) is not finding their task as easy as previous interventions in the region. It is only a matter of time before they become dragged into a ’mini-Iraq’-style conflict.
This intervention is about reintroducing ’stability’ to protect the profit interests of the Australian ruling class in East Timor. The intervention will not build schools or hospitals. The aid agency, World Vision, had to appeal via ABC-TV’s ’Lateline’ to get 2 or 3 troops to protect their food store in Dili, one of the last still unlooted. The Australian army had been too busy taking UN personnel to the airport and safety.
Almost alone of the left, the Socialist Party opposed the Australian intervention in 1999. Back then the Democratic Socialist Party (now Democratic Socialist Perspective) championed the intervention. This time they write in their newspaper, Green Left Weekly: "(The invitation from Dili to intervene) will be used to justify Australian imperialism’s interventionist foreign policy in the region, a strategy that involves the Australian military, police and financial advisors interfering in the running of a number of Australia’s small, poor neighbours in the interests of Australian business and at the expense of the people of the region." What was different in 1999?
They make the naive statement in their paper: "We must expose any attempts by the Australian government to exploit or manipulate the situation".
They also make a utopian call on the Bush, Howard and Blair governments to provide material and financial help for the masses. Do the DSP think these governments will donate anything close to the amount capitalist monopolies steal from East Timor everyday?
The DSP also calls on Bush, Blair and Howard to establish a war crimes tribunal to investigate human-rights abuses in East Timor during the Indonesian occupation. This will never happen, as these three countries want to keep Jakarta onside in the ’War on Terror’.
Unfortunately the small Socialist Party in East Timor, who are political allies of the DSP, have said, "The presence of the international forces was important in restoring calm". This is both factually wrong and politically dangerous.
The only road for the East Timor masses is through the rebuilding of a united, secular and working class party around a socialist programme, plus the strengthening of the weak trade union movement. This programme would include the nationalisation of the oil and gas interests and the pumping of massive resources into public health, education, housing and transport. This would create thousands of jobs. Such a party would attempt to build links with the Indonesian and Australian workers, unions and left.
There is no force other than the East Timor workers, poor farmers, urban poor and youth who will take society forward. Foreign armies, imperialist governments and their political allies in Dili offer nothing but on-going poverty, insecurity and war.