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Here on Redline and in our previous projects – such as the Anti-Capitalist Alliance/Workers Party, the newspaper The Spark and the magazine revolution  we have consistently argued that NZ is imperialist and not a neo-colony.  The material below is part of this tradition.  The introductory part of what follows appeared on the author’s blog, Socialist Democracy, in early 2008, while the article below it appeared in June 2006 in The Spark.  The author was a leading activist in the ACA/Workers Party.

by Tim Bowron

The news of East Timorese president Jose Ramos-Horta’s wounding in an attack by an armed rebel group on his house in Dili yesterday has already seen renewed calls for more NZ troops to be deployed to the tiny island nation. Already a fresh contingent of 200 Australian military and police and military personnel are en route to Timor, and NZ Defence Minister Phil Goff has stated that a platoon of NZ troops is “on standby” at Burnham to deploy if needed.

It has to be asked, though, what exactly the extra ANZAC forces are supposed to achieve, given that prior to yesterday’s events over 1,000 Australian and New Zealand soldiers and police were already stationed in the country as part of an ongoing “peacekeeping” mission.

Of course the truth is that NZ and Australia’s intervention in East Timor has very little to do with humanitarianism – rather it is all about oil and the struggle for political and strategic hegemony against other regional powers (most notably China).

Below is an article I wrote for The Spark back in June 2006, when the New Zealand and Australian governments intervened to oust the previous president of East Timor, Mari Alkatiri, and install in his place Ramos-Horta, which sets out some of the background to the current situation:

East Timor Crisis: No easy answers, but military intervention is not the solution

The recent deployment of Australian and New Zealand troops to East Timor has been presented in the mainstream media as a vital and humanitarian operation aimed at saving a people who, we are supposed to believe, are intrinsically incapable of managing their own affairs. Following on from a similar military “rescue mission” in the Solomon Islands earlier this year, John Howard and Helen Clark have “taken up the white man’s burden” once again and appointed themselves with the task of sorting out the region’s latest “failed state”.

The civil strife which has led to gun-battles, arson and looting on the streets of the East Timorese capital Dili has generally been portrayed as the product of simmering resentments between the lorosae or people from the eastern provinces of the country and the loromonu from the west. Since independence in 2002 the former group, which includes many veterans of the armed liberation struggle against Indonesia from 1976-1999 have predominated in the upper echelons of the East Timorese military and also the ruling Fretilin party.

Beginning in February this year about 600 soldiers (predominantly westerners) – nearly a third of the regular armed forces – went on strike over alleged “discrimination” by army commanders. In late March the government of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri intervened on the side of armed forces chief Taur Matan Ruak and ordered the dismissal of the soldiers, which in turn led to riots and to many of the rebel soldiers threatening to overthrow Alkatiri.

By the end of May two of the leading figures in the government who were not part of Alkatiri’s Fretilin party – President Xanana Gusmao and Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta – had entered into an informal alliance with the rebels and, following an incident in which army troops loyal to Alkatiri killed a number of police who had also sided with the rebellion, they took the opportunity to call upon the Australian, New Zealand and Portuguese governments to intervene.

The real motives for intervention

By a strange coincidence, the Australian government had also recently come into conflict with the government of Mari Alkatiri, but for a slightly different reason – oil. As far back as the early 1970s the Australian ruling class had been angling to get their hands on the enormous oil and gas reserves lying under the Timor Sea and following the collapse of Portuguese colonial rule in 1974 encouraged the Indonesian dictator Suharto to annex East Timor in order to prevent its new independent left wing government from taking control of the oil resources. In return for supporting Indonesia’s occupation, Australia also obtained a favourable re-adjustment of its maritime boundary with East Timor to give it control over the largest and most promising undersea reserves. After the fall of Suharto in 1998 however Indonesia’s hold over East Timor became increasingly shaky. Recognising this, the Australian government deftly re-positioned itself to take the lead in a United Nations force which would preside over the transition to “independence”, reckoning that this would strengthen their chances of being able to retain control over the Timor Gap (instead of another imperialist nation such as the former colonial power Portugal coming in).

This was made explicitly clear when in February 2000, before the handing over of control from the Australian-led International Force in East Timor (Interfet) to the UN Transitional Administration, the Howard government insisted on the approval of agreements binding any future East Timorese government to respect all of Australia’s current oil rights and concessions. During this period prior to handover the Australian and New Zealand governments also obliged the Fretilin guerrilla fighters to confine themselves to barracks while pro-Indonesian militias rampaged about the countryside, massacring many of the local population.

In the run-up to formal independence in 2002 however the newly elected Alkatiri government, while reluctantly agreeing to maintain Australia’s existing oil concessions, refused to endorse the maritime boundary which had been unfairly redrawn by Suharto and the then-Hawke Labor government of Australia in 1989 (under international law the boundary is supposed to run through the middle of the Timor Straits, which would place almost all of the oil in East Timorese territorial waters). The Howard government responded by releasing only a tiny fraction of the sum due to the East Timorese in royalty payments for the next three years, until in April 2005 the Alkatiri government finally agreed to waive away its right to have the maritime boundary subjected to international arbitration for another 50-60 years. The end result though of having been cut off from its main source of revenue for such a long period is that East Timor has failed to develop infrastructure in key areas such as schools, decent housing and healthcare.

Yet Australia has still not forgiven Alkatiri for his defiance – in recent months there has been a steady barrage of claims that he is a “marxist”, that he is in league with Fidel Castro and the Chinese Communist Party etc etc. In truth Alkatiri is none of these things – his crime has simply been to attempt to try to negotiate a more favourable economic position vis à vis the region’s major imperialist power, and for that he must now apparently be punished.

When discontent over rampant unemployment and government corruption led to street protests and attacks on UN offices and foreign businesses in Dili in December 2002 John Howard was fulsome in his support for Alkatiri’s ruthless suppression of the protesters. Yet now in 2006 Australian troops are employed in negotiating safe-passage through the streets of the East Timorese capital for rebel groups wishing to protest outside the presidential palace!

The economic roots of the crisis

Unsurprisingly, for a country whose one potential source of export revenue is largely under foreign control, East Timor today is characterised by extreme poverty. The reasons for the ethnic divisions which are now coming to the surface are plain to see – East Timor has the lowest per capita income in the world (around US$ 400 per annum) with some 70-80% of the population reliant on subsistence agriculture. This situation is reinforced by the lack of any jobs in the towns for people to go to (unemployment currently is at least 40%), which leaves them with a simple choice between starvation and vagrancy.

Despite this during the period from 2000-2002 when the United Nations ran East Timor less than 2% of UN aid went to developing agriculture, with the overwhelming bulk being spent instead on building up the government bureaucracies and the armed forces.

As Karl Marx wrote over a century and a half ago in his book The German Ideology, when a society becomes dominated by conditions of generalised want and scarcity, then “…the struggle for necessities begins again and all the old crap revives”. This is the single biggest obstacle preventing the formation in East Timor today of a broad anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist movement capable of uniting the workers and subsistence farmers across the ethnic and linguistic divide.

New Zealand and Australian troops provide no security for ordinary East Timorese

While recognising the imperialist motivation behind the intervention of Australia and also the New Zealand government, which is essentially trying to curry favour with Bush and Howard so as to gain their support for an enhanced NZ “sphere of influence” in the South Pacific, many on the left see no other option than to back the recent foreign troop deployment in East Timor. Taking refuge in the counsel of despair, they say that until the fighting stops there can be no talk of improving the lives of the ordinary East Timorese.

However this is a forlorn hope already disproved by events unfolding on the ground in East Timor. The New Zealand and Australian governments have no interest in stopping the violence – while their troops are busy killing Muslim insurgents in the Torah-Borah mountains of Afghanistan, these same soldiers are apparently helpless to protect the food warehouses on the Dili waterfront from being looted by civilians (see report in Dominion Post, 31 May) nor do they even deem it necessary to protect the office of the Serious Crimes Unit containing files on those responsible for war crimes during the Indonesian occupation from being burned to the ground (which happened on May 30).

If the workers of Australia and New Zealand are really serious about aiding the plight of the East Timorese, then instead of supporting the sending of soldiers who are only their to protect the property of imperialists (not the Timorese themselves) and implement regime change (i.e. getting rid of Alkatiri and installing a more pliant instrument) they would do much better to demand the immediate return of all of East Timor’s confiscated oil wealth to the people of that country.

Only when East Timor is freed of the economic stranglehold of imperialism will there be a chance for a united working class alternative to the present sectarian factions to emerge. The presence of Australian and New Zealand troops there does nothing to solve the violence while at the same time the country becomes more impoverished by the day.

Further reading: NZ: neo-colony or junior imperialist?

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