East Timor on the brink of civil war - who's to blame?
On February the 8th nearly six hundred soldiers - a third of the army - went on strike by walking out of their barracks. Most of the rebel soldiers come from the Loromonu ethnic group in the West of the country. They have complained of brutal treatment by commanders, poor pay, and poor living conditions. They have also been bitterly critical of East Timor's police force, accusing it of widespread human rights abuses and links with pro-Indonesian militias.
On the 16th of March the government of Mari Alkatori sacked the rebels en masse, but the protests did not end. On April the 28th the rebels marched on the capital, determined to win reinstatement and have their grievances heard by Alkatari and President Xanana Gusmao. The march was joined by thousands of unemployed Dili youths shouting anti-government slogans. When the march reached the offices of the Prime Minister in the centre of the city police opened fire on it, killing six people and prompting the youths to begin a riot that saw one hundred buildings burnt down or vandalised. The rebel soldiers fled the city, pursued by police. The World Socialist Website has recieved a report that one rebel was shot along with his two sons on the outskirts of the city. Two female relatives of the slain men were also reportedly murdered when they attempted to recover the bodies of their loved ones. Twenty thousand civilians fled Dili in the wake of the violence of April the 28th.
The rebels have regrouped and established a zone under their control in East Timor's mountainous interior. They have been joined by sympathisers carrying arms and by many members of East Timor's military police. On May the 5th the rebels issued a declaration which threatened attacks on Dili and other towns. On May the 9th a thousand of their supporters surrounded the police station at Gleno, a town outside Dili. After stones were thrown the police opened fire on the demonstation, killing one person and injuring thirty.
The violence in East Timor has alarmed the governments of Australia and New Zealand. John Howard and his Foreign Minister Alexander Downer have both suggested that Australian troops may have to return to East Timor in large numbers, and on the 5th of May New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters echoed their sentiments. Australia has already boosted the size of the skeleton UN force in Dili from 90 to 200, in response to a request from East Timorese Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta.
The East Timorese government has characterised the rebel soldiers and their supporters as 'terrorists' bent on 'undermining democracy', but the country's opposition politicians tell another story. Angela Feitas, who plans to run for President against Gusmao in the elections scheduled for next year, has blamed the government for the crisis, and said that 'Right now, it's worse [than it was] during the 1999 referendum [on independence]'.
The bloodshed and chaos in East Timor these past few weeks must have come as a rude shock to many New Zealanders. Over the past few years politicians and the media have turned East Timor into a sort of modern fairytale story. According to this story, Australia and New Zealand liberated the defenceless little country from Indonesian occupation in 1999 out of sheer benevolence. Since 1999, East Timor has supposedly been an island of democracy and peace, a positive example for the rest of the Third World. The reality is that the current crisis in East Timor is the direct result of 1999's 'humanitarian' intervention.
After wholeheartedly supporting Indonesia's genocidal occupation of East Timor for nearly a quarter of a century, the US and its South Pacific deputy sheriffs in Canberra and Wellington did a U turn near the end of 1999. By then it had become clear that Indonesia would be unable to retain control of East Timor much longer. Decades of guerrilla warfare and the weakening of the Indonesian state after the overthrow of the Suharto dictatorship in 1997 had made East Timor impossible to govern from Jakarta.
The US and its allies had supported the invasion of 1975 because they were worried about the emergence of an uncooperative government in East Timor. Their concern had returned in 1999. The Timor Strait which separates East Timor and Australia contains rich deposits of oil and gas, and in 1989 Australia had signed a deal with Indonesia that had allowed it to begin exploiting these deposits. The Howard government did not want to see this lucrative operation jeporadised by a nationalistic East Timorese government. Australia and the US were also worried by the possibility that an East Timorese government might encourage the secessionist war being fought in West Papua, another territory Indonesia had acquired illegitimately.
But the US, Australia and New Zealand soon found that the leaders of Fretelin, East Timor's main pro-independence movement, were more than ready to listen to their concerns. In the 1970s, Fretelin icons like Gusmao and Ramos-Horta had been anti-imperialists who espoused a mixture of radical Catholicism and Marxism; by the end of the '90s, though, they had long since become believers in free market capitalism and collaboration with the US and its allies. Ramos-Horta had spent years travelling the world trying to enlist Western support for the East Timorese cause, always emphasising the 'reasonableness' and 'moderation' of Fretelin. (In recent years, Foreign Minister Ramos-Horta has been an outspoken supporter of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.)
At the beginning of September 1999, Indonesian-backed militia launched attacks on civilians across East Timor in the aftermath of a referendum on independence. The militia were far weaker than the regular Indonesian army, which had mostly withdrawn from East Timor in the lead-up to the referendum. Many militiamen lacked military training and used homemade weapons. Fretelin's armed wing Falintil could easily have defeated these amateur soldiers, but Gusmao and co had ensured that Falintil troops were barracked deep in the countryside, away from major population centres. Falintil fighters who wanted to march on Dili and smash the militia there were disarmed and disciplined on the orders of the Fretelin leadership. Fretelin's strategy was to sacrifice East Timorese civilians to the anti-independence militia, in order to generate international sympathy and help push the US and Australia to organise an armed intervention.
In Australia and New Zealand, thousands of people took to the streets to protest the slaughter taking place in East Timor. In Australia, trade unions took industrial action against Indonesia's national airline and a number of other businesses linked to the government in Jakarta. In September 1999 Auckland was hosting the annual APEC summit of Asia and Pacific leaders; a handful of Fretelin politicians flew into the city to lead demonstrations. In a backroom meeting at the APEC summit in downtown Auckland, Bill Clinton, John Howard, and New Zealand Prime Minister Jenny Shipley were already organising an armed intervention force that would operate under a UN mandate.
The vast majority of those demonstrating in solidarity with East Timor supported Fretelin's call for UN intervention in the country. Australia's most popular left-wing paper, the Green Left Weekly, demanded that John Howard organise a force to occupy the island; the trade unions of Australia and New Zealand echoed this call. Only a few small Marxist groups opposed the intervention and pointed out the strategy Fretelin leaders were employing.
Many East Timorese welcomed the troops that landed under the UN's banner in October 1999. But the reality of the occupation soon set in. The mainly Australian and New Zealand troops had come to ensure the submission of an independent East Timor, and to safeguard Australia's interests in the Timor Strait. Tens of millions of dollars worth of military material was poured into East Timor, but relatively little humanitarian aid arrived. Many East Timorese resented the arrogance of the new occupying force, which was not subject to any local control.
In December 1999, UN troops and East Timorese police opened fire on a march through Dili by unemployed workers, killing several people and sparking a series of riots (the photo at the bottom of this post shows an Australian soldier standing guard over a detainee in the aftermath of one of the riots). Over the next few years Dili would see more riots, as the reality of the new order the UN force had established became ever clearer. On December the 4th 2002, for instance, two Dili students were killed after a protest against police and UN brutality was fired on and turned into a riot. By December 2002 it was clear to many East Timorese that their country's formal independence masked domination by Australia and New Zealand. Australia continued to exploit the oil and gas of the Timor Strait, but paid the East Timorese government only $130 million in royalties every year. In May 2005 Australian control of the Strait was cemented by a one-sided deal which saw the East Timorese agreeing not to stake territorial claims to previously-disputed areas of seabed for sixty years.
With only a trickle of money coming from the Timor Strait, East Timor remains very poor. The UN estimates that per capita income is $370 a year, and falling. Unemployment stands at sixty percent. It is not surprising that the extreme poverty caused by imperialist superexploitation has led to widespread dissatisfaction. But even before the soldiers' strike, the East Timorese government had been in the habit of responding to opposition with threats and repression, not dialogue. Under the rule of Fretelin, the East Timorese police force has become almost as feared as the Indonesian army of occupation once was. A Human Rights Watch Report released in April accused the police of torture, rape, and the murder of opponents of the government.
When we consider the recent history of East Timor, it is easy to see why the soldiers' rebellion has attracted the support of many people outside the military. The soldiers' complaints of poor pay, poor living conditions, and police abuses are complaints that many East Timorese share. The big military-civilian protest which was so brutally repressed on April the 28th showed the level of popular anger with the regime of Gusmao and Alkatari. That regime and its backers in Canberra and Wellington may yet try to crush the rebellion by deploying thousands of Anzac troops across East Timor in a re-run of 1999. The Australasian left must learn from the mistake it made then, and refuse to support any new imperialist adventure in East Timor.