Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

East Timor: Howard’s ‘mini-Iraq’

Reading Time: 3 minutes

With no end in sight, the situation in East Timor seems to be going from bad to worse. Ever since President Jose Ramos-Horta chose his close ally Xanana Gusmao to be the new Prime Minister the country has been overcome by a new wave of violence and instability.

Last month hundreds of homes, schools and offices were torched in both Dili and in the east of the country. Immediately after Gusmao was installed as Prime Minister youths threw rocks at Australian troops and set government buildings on fire in protest at the decision. Australian troops and United Nations police responded by firing tear-gas and rubber bullets at the protesters.

After the election in June neither Fretilin nor the National Congress for the Reconstruction of East Timor (CNRT) party led by Gusmao were able to achieve an overall majority. So after protracted talks Ramos-Horta appointed Gusmao Prime Minister on August 6.

Fretilin, under Mari Alkatiri, won 21 seats in the election, while Gusmao’s CNRT party won only 18 seats. Fretilin argued that it should form the government because it won the most votes, but the CNRT party formed an alliance with smaller parties, giving it 37 seats in the 65-member legislature.

The recent violence triggered fears of a return to the volatile situation of mid-2006, when feuding between rival army and police units spilled out on to the streets. On that occasion more than 30 people were killed and thousands were forced to flee their homes.

The 2006 clashes eventually led to the resignation of Alkatiri, who was then Prime Minister. Howard used this opportunity to increase Australia’s military presence in East Timor and assisted in ousting Alkatiri from power.

The situation for ordinary people in East Timor is dire. According to the UN, 15% of the roughly 1 million population was uprooted during 2006 and many remain internally displaced. East Timor remains one of the poorest countries on earth.

Howard’s two point men in Dili

Australia welcomed the appointment of Gusmao as the next Prime Minister of East Timor. The United States also backed the new government under Gusmao and called on all parties to refrain from violence and accept the new government.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said that “Gusmao has been a key figure in East Timor’s recent history and Australia looks forward to working with him and his government”.

The Howard government has used their military occupation of East Timor to ensure that Fretilin was removed from power and a more compliant regime was installed. Both Ramos-Horta and Gusmao have been loyal servants of Australian big business interests in East Timor. The Howard government needs it to stay this way in order to maintain its control of the offshore gas and oil resources in the Timor Sea.

When Alkitiri was in power he attempted to play off Australia against other economic powers in the region, including China. This forced some concessions from Australia and led the Howard government to attempt to sideline Alkitiri and support their closer allies in the CNRT party.

China’s increasing presence in the region is of major concern to some sections of the Australian ruling class. As competition intensifies for resources and prestige in the region, the Australian ruling class will resist any attempt by Fretilin to develop alternative political and economic relationships, particularly with China but also with Portugal.

The problem for the Howard government at the moment is that is facing a ‘mini-Iraq’ style situation in East Timor. The longer they continue on with their military occupation the more instability and opposition to the occupation they face. On the other hand if they withdraw their troops they risk the possibility of a less compliant regime coming to power; risking millions of dollars of profits being lost from the oil and gas revenues in the Timor Sea.

The reality is that the differences between Fretilin and CNRT are incidental. They both support the neo liberal reforms of the IMF and have no real plan to eradicate poverty in the small nation.

The only road for the East Timorese masses is through the rebuilding of a genuine working class party around a socialist programme and the strengthening of the trade union and labour movement as a whole. The building of links between Indonesian and Australian workers is also key.

A genuine working class party with socialist policies would fight to nationalise the oil and gas interests and pump the massive resources into public health, education, housing and transport. It is only the working class, students and urban poor who are in a position to take society forward in East Timor.

By Anthony Main


The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare many of the problems with capitalism. The Socialist strives to explain the systemic causes of this crisis, and reports about the issues that are important to working people. We also help to organise struggles against the powers that be.

We don’t receive a cent from big business or governments. Our work is fully funded by our supporters. Even if half the people who read our website every month donated a few dollars each we would raise thousands to help our work!

We need organisations of struggle now more than ever, so if you support what we do please consider making a donation.

One-off or regular donations can be made securely HERE.