Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

East Timor: Australia’s little colonial adventure

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Australia’s intervention in East Timor is becoming unstuck, and could well turn into a mini-Iraq for John Howard. With no end in sight, and an ongoing disaster that Australia has helped to create, it is possible that Howard could be bogged down in East Timor for some time to come.

The first round of the East Timor Presidential elections held on April 9 had losers all round. Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres, the candidate for Fretilin, the main liberation group during the Indonesian occupation, came first with 28% – a loss of nearly 30% from the last election.

Australia’s favourite, Jose Ramos Horta – who supported the invasion of Iraq and consistently argues a pro-Canberra line – came second, despite huge support from Australia, on only 20%. In third place was the pro-Portugal mildly social democratic, Democratic Party, with 18% for Fernando ‘La Sama’ Araujo.

The Socialist Party of Timor (PST), which unfortunately supports the Australian occupation or at least is not campaigning against it, stood Avelino Coelho da Silva who won 3%.

There is great disappointment amongst the masses at the lack of real change in their lives since independence in 1999 and this was reflected in no candidate getting huge support.

The mass uprising at that time against occupation was strongly backed by the mass of Australians, in particular workers and their unions. The occupation had been backed by Coalition and ALP Australian governments since Whitlam and Kissinger gave Suharto the nod to invade in 1975.

During the liberation struggle there were mass demonstrations and pickets against Indonesian interests in Australia and work brigades were sent to East Timor to support the people.

As the Socialist Party (CWI Australia) has explained, back in 1999 the Australian government was under pressure from an electorate keen for ‘something to be done’ for the East Timorese masses who were facing brutality from the Indonesian-backed militia. 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 after the masses had voted overwhelmingly for independence.

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 in any other part of the world would be controlled by East Timor.

That’s $365 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 US$565 million spent by the UN in East Timor since independence has only served strengthened this imperialist plunder.

The Fretilin government has therefore had precious little resources to deal with the massive social 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.

The Fretilin government were under pressure from below to use the oil wealth to solve the social problems. This, plus their friendly ties to Portugal and China, could not be tolerated by Canberra who sees East Timor as part of its area of influence.

Last year Canberra began a successful destabilisation campaign against the Fretilin government. They rested on the support of President Xanana Gusmao and then foreign affairs minister, Ramos Horta, both of whom are strong supporters of Australian big business interests.

Australia capitalised on tensions inside the local police and armed forces and encouraged a rebellion against the Fretilin government led by Australian-trained former major Alfredo Reinado and supported by a big media campaign by the ABC and others. Extra Australian troops were sent to East Timor – there are currently 1,200 Australian and New Zealand armed forces on the ground to protect big business interests.

The end result was that Fretilin Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri was replaced by Ramos Horta – who has now attempted to win the President position. The Canberra plan was to get Horta as President, followed up by a win in the June 30th parliamentary elections by a new right-wing party set up by retiring President Gusmao – who would then become Prime Minister. Australia would then have their two point men in the two top jobs.

The Presidential election has, therefore, not gone to plan for Canberra or Horta and Gusmao. The bosses’ media have begun a half-hearted campaign about ballot rigging, but this has been undermined by the presence of 2,000 local and international election monitors who have in the main declared the first round relatively clean.

On May 8 there will be a run-off election for President between Fretilin’s Guterres and Ramos Horta. Australia will do everything to get Horta elected but it is not certain they will pull it off. Whoever wins, neither Fretilin nor Horta have any policies that favour ordinary people in East Timor.

The only road of 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 the left.

There is no force other than the East Timorese 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.

By Stephen Jolly


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